Franz Welser-Möst / Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich
Bruckner: Symphony No.8 in C minor, WAB 108

Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2017-11-15

3-star rating


2017-11-17 — Original posting

Franz Welser-Möst (© Michael Pöhn)
Franz Welser-Möst (© Michael Pöhn)

 

Introduction

Franz Welser-Möst (*1960) grew up in Wels, near Linz, Austria. He initially studied the violin, while also developing an interest in conducting. When an accident forced him to stop playing the violin, he switched to studying conducting full-time.

Welser-Möst is familiar with the Zurich music scene: after initial tenures with the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra (1986 – 1991) and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1990 – 1996), he was music director of the Zurich Opera House between 1995 and 2000. In 2005 he was named GMD at the same institution. He stepped down from this position in 2008, when he accepted the same position at the Vienna State Opera, a position from which he resigned in 2014. Since 2002, he is music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, which now is the center of his activities. That contract was recently extended  through 2022.

This concert is not Welser-Möst’s first encounter with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich: he has cooperated with that orchestra in several concerts between 1986 and 2016.

An Interesting Coincidence

Merely three days earlier, exactly in Franz Welser-Möst’s previous workplace, the Zurich Opera, Fabio Luisi and the Philharmonia Zurich had given an impressive performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No.4 in E♭ major. With this, it would be interesting to see how the Tonhalle Orchestra would fare with a Bruckner symphony. Notably, up to 32 years ago, the Philharmonia Zurich and the Tonhalle Orchestra were parts of one and the  same orchestra. They were based on one single pool of musicians. Though, already back then, musicians were typically performing in either one or the other orchestra exclusively.

But the cross-links were not limited to proximity in time and in the common origins of the orchestras:

Acoustics

With its temporary home in the Tonhalle Maag, now also the Tonhalle Orchestra is now playing in a venue with dry, analytical acoustics. Hence, a comparison between the two performances was really inevitable. However, while there are similarities in the acoustics, the two concert settings are of course very different otherwise:

  • Despite its theater acoustics, the Opera House offers an atmosphere that is both festive, as well as intimate. The velvet-clad seats, the boxes and richly decorated balconies reinforce that impression. What also helps is the proximity between audience and orchestra, reaching into the center of the auditorium.
  • The Tonhalle Maag is completely different from this. The room is bright, it seems open and wide (whereby the latter is partly due to a slight lack in height). The orchestra is surrounded by the audience. Nevertheless, factually and by impression, the distance to the average listener is bigger.

More on Acoustics

I have written about the Tonhalle Maag and its acoustics before. Let me add something here: around the actual concert, I find the hall rather noisy. It “retransmits” not just music, but also all the noise that the incoming audience generates. On top of that, the dress and rehearsal rooms for the orchestra are probably very limited (to say the least). Therefore, one can see numerous musicians take or keep their seat in the half-hour prior to the performance and during the intermission, in order to rehearse for themselves, warm up, etc.—on the podium. With all this cacophony, the mishmash of noise from audience and podium I occasionally found it difficult to keep my thoughts together, let alone have and express any musical thoughts when talking to my neighbor.

Overall, the atmosphere in the temporary venue is rather sober, neutral, if not frugal. I suspect that (in comparison to the Opera House) this makes it harder for the musicians to connect with the audience. I can say so much already: this concert did not do much to prove that latter statement wrong.


Bruckner: Symphony No.8 in C minor, WAB 108

Anton Bruckner (1824 – 1896) completed the original version of his Symphony No.8 in 1887, completing four years of work on what he regarded the crown of his symphonies so far. Sadly, his friend and supporter, the conductor Hermann Levi (1839 – 1900), found it impossible to wrap his mind around the work and outright rejected conducting it, to the composer’s total dismay.

Levi and one of Bruckner’s pupils, the conductor Josef Schalk (1857 – 1900) made suggestions for “improvements”, which Bruckner, being the submissive character that he was, duly accepted in further modifications (including a silent ending of the opening movement in lieu of a triumphant one, as well as a new Trio, major alterations in the Adagio, and shortenings). A second version with all these alterations appeared 1892. Still, the young Felix Weingartner (1863 – 1942) felt unable to conduct the work, which ultimately premiered 1892 under the direction of Hans Richter (1843 – 1916). In its last version (1890), the symphony has the following four movements:

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Scherzo: Allegro moderato – Trio: Langsam (slowly)
  3. Adagio: Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend (solemnly slow, but without dragging)
  4. Finale: Feierlich, nicht schnell (solemn, not fast)

Sadly, all those “external suggestions” and revisions, along with constant revisions on other, earlier symphonies (also largely based on suggestions by the composer’s “friends”, not only delayed the completion and publication of the symphony, but very likely it also were the reason why the Symphony No.9 in D minor ultimately remained incomplete.

Instrumentation

The symphony calls for a fairly big orchestral apparatus, including (according to the program notes)

  • 3 flutes, oboes, and clarinets each
  • 3 bassoons (#3 alternating with contrabassoon)
  • 9 horns (#1 doubled, four of the horns alternating with Wagner tubas)
  • 3 trumpets
  • 3 trombones
  • Tuba
  • timpani
  • percussion (cymbals, triangle)
  • 3 harps
  • strings

The Performance

On top of what I stated above, the acoustics of the venue seemed to have a tendency to flatten the dynamics. At the very least, I would not want to blame the musicians exclusively if not all of the extreme dynamic span in Bruckner’s notation transpired through the performance. The string voices—primarily violins—did actually often play extreme ppp, down to a mere whispering. This was excellent, and one could still easily hear and locate these segments. String players can do this. However, in the wind sections (brass as well as reed instruments in particular) there is a minimum volume. Below this, the response of the instrument becomes erratic, insecure.

Just for illustration: Bruckner begins the first movement with a pp in the strings. Here, already the theme entries in the low strings sounded too central, too concrete. I missed the sensation of mystery. Later, I also found the solos in the woodwinds to have too much presence. It is not impossible that this was due to the clarity of the acoustics. Indeed, some of the entries in the horns and clarinets were so soft that the instruments just about still responded properly.

I. Allegro moderato

Somewhat related to the above remarks on the acoustics: I should mention that in terms of overall dynamics, Franz Welser-Möst did carefully observe the composer’s notation. Actually, the main focus of his interpretation appeared to be in the dynamics, in the shaping of the big phrases and arches, Bruckner’s huge build-up waves. At the same time, almost throughout the symphony, tempo changes remained inconspicuous. Many of Bruckner’s numerous annotations, such as accelerando and ritardando (or the German equivalent, of course) were hardly noticeable, if at all. Some might claim that the interpretation was subtle in that point. However, I tend to disagree: if the composer makes annotations, shouldn’t at least some of this transpire to the listener?

Moreover, Welser-Möst didn’t apply rubato (at least none to speak of). If he applied agogics at all (which can only be done through instructions in the rehearsals), this again remained unnoticeable. Sure, rhythmically, everything seemed correct—too correct, maybe. Occasionally, I wished for a minute broadening (hence highlighting) of triplets and quintuplets, for some more play with the weights of the beats within a bar. One might call his view classic rather than romantic. However, even with music from the classic period, rhythmic rigidity should long be a thing of the past.

II. Scherzo: Allegro moderato – Trio: Langsam

One can certainly state that Franz Welser-Möst avoided extremes in general, which in parts was beneficial for the performance: the Scherzo was not exceedingly dramatic or theatrical. It remained mellow enough in the brass sound, such as to avoid any impression of military music, especially towards the end.

In the Trio, the general rest at “E” seemed exceptionally long. The subsequent entries of the horns were marvelously mellow and sonorous. The Trio also profited from the transparency of the acoustics, assisted by light articulation in the strings. Even with this very large orchestral apparatus, the three harps maintained the presence they deserved.

III. Adagio: Feierlich langsam, doch nicht schleppend

The performance of the Adagio featured excellent, resonant sonority. I particularly enjoyed the sound of the horns and of the Wagner tubas. Sure, indulging in sentimentality is nothing Welser-Möst would do. One example: with some performances / recordings—the Wagner tubas instantly evoke reminiscences of scenes from Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883). The instrument was actually invented for Wagner’s “Ring“. Here, this notion seemed to be largely missing: to some degree, the music failed to touch my heart, in particular the descending “farewell-motif” towards the end, which usually moves me immensely, profoundly.

IV. Finale: Feierlich, nicht schnell

At “N” in the Finale, after a pp in the strings, the timpani, bassoons and strings suddenly break out into seemingly endless repetitions of the same 1-bar motif. At this point, Welser-Möst immediately switched to a faster pace. This seemed hardly justified, as the score has nothing but a marcato annotation for the strings. I actually could rather imagine a slight broadening of the tempo at this point, in order to highlight that section, giving it more weight.

Only in this last movement, the brass section could exert its full power. However, it never overpowered the acoustics, never felt oppressive. I was definitely impressed with the relentless, exhaustive action in the string voices—really requiring the ultimate effort and endurance.

Conclusion

Throughout the symphony, the performance of the orchestra was truly excellent—nothing to complain about at all. Often, one can hear this symphony (and others by the same composer) as a kind of brass orgy. Here, the sound was rather dominated by the string sections. Though, not to a degree where it would have been detrimental. The wind sections were actually outstanding. They were able to contribute adequately to the sound and the overall result. I’m primarily thinking of the French horns and the Wagner tubas (important in this work!), as well as flutes, oboes, clarinets.

On the bright side, Welser-Möst managed to keep the tension, even in the long movements. Yet, overall, the performance did not “pull me in”: my impression was that of a relatively sober performance, somewhat dry, emotionally. Too bad, as for the composer, this was his opus summum, his biggest work so far, exceeding all of his previous symphonies: it’s for a reason that he dedicated it to the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.


Addendum:

For the same concert, I have also written a (shorter) review in German for Bachtrack.com. This posting is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with Bachtrack.com. I created the German review using a subset of the notes taken during this concert. I wanted to enable my non-German speaking readers to read about my concert experience as well. Therefore, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this separate posting. I’m including additional material that is not present in the Bachtrack review.



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