2017-07-24 — Original posting
Zurich Opera, 2017-07-15
InMo Yang, Fabio Luisi / Philharmonia Zurich
Richard Strauss / Niccolò Paganini
I have also written a review for this concert on Bachtrack.com, in German. This review is not a translation of the Bachtrack review.
In their concert on 2017-07-05 the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich concluded its concert season (and the last season in the old Tonhalle prior to the renovation break) with a subtle, classical program, demonstrating their experience and abilities in historically informed performance (HIP). In contrast, the orchestra of the Zurich Opera House, the Philharmonia Zurich, and their General Music Director, Fabio Luisi (*1959), decided to end the concert season with a late-romantic repertoire, “spiced up” with a “circus insert”, a violin concerto by Paganini.
This led to major differences in the two orchestra’s concert configurations: the Tonhalle Orchestra in compact, classical formation, the Philharmonia Zurich in a comparatively huge, rich, post-romantic orchestra formation, extending from the depth of the stage across the orchestra pit, over the first rows of the parquet seating. The sheer size of the orchestra, along with the black, sequin-covered cladding of the stage, raised expectations on a festive celebration of the season’s end.
Strauss: Tone Poem “Don Juan”, op.20
The “Don Juan”, op.20 is a “Tone Poem” (“Tondichtung“) that Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) wrote in 1888, at age 24. It’s the second composition in this genre, which Strauss created / invented. “Don Juan” is derived from / based on a 1844 play “Don Juans Ende” (The End of Don Juan”) by Nikolaus Lenau (1802 – 1850). The premiere (Weimar, 1889, with Strauss conducting) was an instant success.
The composition is for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, glockenspiel, harp (doubled) and strings.
Based on the experience with past symphonic concerts at this venue, I worried about the dry acoustics even before the concert started. Indeed, the absence of any noticeable reverberation amazes me every time.
However, this time, that impression only lasted a few bars. For the rest of the evening, I not only ignored the lack of reverberation: I even completely forgot about it. In my opinion, the acoustics in this concert weren’t even an adverse factor at all. They even contributed to the success of the evening.
In venues with strong reverberation, the dense textures and the large orchestral setting in Strauss’ tome poems have a certain tendency to sound overloaded, “think”, dense, if not overblown. Occasionally, this may lead a conductor to aim for a particularly dry, sober performance.
This evening, I felt that the contrary was true: the clarity and dryness of the acoustics led to an extreme Spaltklang, i.e., from the audience, one could not only exactly locate strings, woodwinds and brass instruments on the podium, but these groups also appeared as separate, acoustic entities, which greatly enhanced the clarity, the transparency of the sound. With this, Fabio Luisi could use fluent tempi, have the orchestra play with lots of momentum and expressive dynamics. He could let the emotions flow freely. And he never was in danger of overloading the music, the sound. The wind solos could not have sounded clearer and more direct, even if the instrumentalists had performed at the front edge of the podium.
Fabio Luisi’s transitions were harmonious, always gentle. At the same time, the orchestra’s dynamic span was enormous. Of course, one would expect this with 60 string players and such a large number of wind players. The coordination, the orchestral discipline in general was truly excellent. Yet, this was not a performance with cold, shiny perfection. Rather, the music was full of life—not just in the loud parts with brilliant brass sounds and/or fortissimo in the strings, but also in the more intimate segments, such as the parts with solo violin. As for the latter: less than two weeks after I heard her perform Bach in an excellent, historically informed interpretation, the concert master, Hanna Weinmeister, proved that she is equally at home in the late-romantic repertoire, adjusting her playing, articulation, etc. to that period.
Paganini: Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, op.6
Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) completed five violin concertos in total. the first one, Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, op.6, dates from 1816. The other four concerti date from 1826 – 1830. Besides the first one, only the Violin Concerto No.2 in b minor, op.7 (a.k.a. “La campanella“) kept a notable presence in concert halls.
The orchestral score of Concerto No.1 originally was in E flat major, while the composer wrote the solo part in D major. The purpose was two-fold, presumably: for one, the E flat major tonality appeared to make the concerto harder to play. At the same time, Paganini tuned his violin a half-tone higher (A flat — E flat — B flat — F), which avoided the difficulties of playing E flat major, while at the same time making his instrument sound louder and brighter, due to the higher string tension. Later, an unknown composer / arranger changed the concerto to D major altogether. This is the version now commonly heard in convert, such as here. The composition features three movements:
- Allegro maestoso – Tempo giusto
- Rondo: Allegro spirituoso – Un poco più presto
How to Rate this Concerto?
Along with other violin concertos, Paganini’s op.6 is one of the core pieces in a violin virtuoso’s repertoire, a bravura piece, as also other compositions by the same composer. However, the D major concerto still doesn’t appear in concerts all that often. Paganini definitely was a master virtuoso on his instrument. However, as a composer, I think that his strength was more in the small form, such as his famous 24 Capricci, op.1, or in variations on famous themes by other composers, rather than in the big form, such as the three movements in this concerto.
After having listened through this concerto a few times, I feel that with its countless changes in tempo, this composition, particularly in its first movement, tends to fall apart into a large number of small episodes. Each of these episodes my be a little gem, presenting ideas full of phantasy, but barely forming a compelling, single entity.
The young Korean violinist InMo Yang (*1995) gave his debut recital in Seoul at age 11, and 2010 he made his first public appearance with a concerto. After studies at the Korean National Institute for the Gifted in Arts and later at the Korean National University of Arts, he now pursues a Bachelor of Music degree at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where he is studying with Miriam Fried (*1946). His instrument is a Stradivarius, a composite instrument, with components from around 1705 and 1718. In 2014 and 2015, InMo Yang won several prizes, and since then, his concert schedule is filling up gradually.
When InMo Yang entered the podium, he appeared almost shy, modest, friendly, and without any signs of nervousness or stage anxiety. Paganini’s first violin concerto has had a firm, core place in his repertoire for the past few years.
I. Allegro maestoso – Tempo giusto
In this movement, Paganini quite obviously “inherited” ideas from Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868), most notably his overtures. Indeed, the result sounds similar to an overture to an opera: a sequence of “advance (preview) snippets” from a multi-faceted opera that appears to follow, maybe giving an outline of the subsequent story. These snippets may all be interesting, but there is no (or very little) conclusive thematic connection, and—more importantly—no rhythmic “red line” to follow through.
At least, the topic of “overture” fits the venue, the conductor and the orchestra (which primarily serves opera, after all). Both Fabio Luisi and InMo Yang demonstrated their sense for drama: they did their best to form a “course of actions” from the many short episodes—as much as that is possible at all. InMo Yang’s Stradivari easily projected above the sound of the orchestra’s somewhat reduced string body. The sound of the instrument was bright, but never shrill or incisive. In the lower registers the violin was warm-sounding, overall very balanced, well-equilibrated.
The young artists played his phrases with very expressive rubato, often very fast, and with excellent intonation over the full, large span of the fingerboard. His technique is stupendous, through all of Paganini’s challenging tricks, such as sautillé, flageolet, double-stop runs and passages, or the left-hand pizzicato (revolutionary when this concerto premiered). Also the neck-breaking cadenza was phenomenal: InMo Yang played the famous cadenza by Émile Sauret (1852 – 1920), whereby he shortened the middle part “down to more human dimensions”.
The Adagio is dramatic and expressive. It’s a true recitativo accompagnato: here, we find ourselves in a proper theater! InMo Yang’s solo part felt really narrative, while Fabio Luisi and his orchestra assisted as reliable, flexible / adaptive accompaniment.
III. Rondo: Allegro spirituoso – Un poco più presto
To me, the last movement clearly is the best one (as a composition) in this concerto. But it’s also the most demanding one, technically. I’m not just referring to the agility required in the challenging, rapid passages, but also to the tricky intonation in the middle part. Here, the solo part is extremely exposed. Here, even InMo Yang seemed to feel the challenge. However, in the last part, he “compensated” by firmly seizing control again. Fabio Luisi’s sense for drama was evident in the build-up of tension in the general rest that precedes the furious, final sequence.
Encore — Fritz Kreisler: Recitativo and Scherzo-Caprice, op.6
As an encore, InMo Yang offered Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice for Solo Violin, op.6, by the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962), who published this in 1911. Both in its harmonies, as well as in general attitude, this composition seems to anticipate the well-known Solo Sonatas op.2, which Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931) composed 1923.
Strauss: Tone Poem “Ein Heldenleben“, op.40
Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) composed his Tone Poem “Ein Heldenleben” (A Hero’s Life), op.40 in 1898, some 10 years after “Don Juan”, op.20. The composition features 6 movements, all following each other without interruption (attacca):
- The Hero (Der Held)
- The Hero’s Adversaries (Des Helden Widersacher)
- The Hero’s Companion (Des Helden Gefährtin)
- The Hero at Battle (Des Helden Walstatt)
- The Hero’s Works of Peace (Des Helden Friedenswerke)
- The Hero’s Retirement from this World and Completion (Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung)
There is a controversy about who was meant by the “hero” of “Ein Heldenleben“. Strauss allegedly stated “I’m not a hero”. On the other hand, people have taken various facts around this composition as signs that the Tone Poem is about the composer himself: a maybe fairly presumptuous concept! However, the music is not concrete (apart from the titles), and so one can safely take it as “absolute” / abstract. And then, it is and remains fascinating music, for sure: clearly, the culmination of the evening.
“Ein Heldenleben” requires a large orchestra—even larger than that in “Don Juan”:
- piccolo, 3 flutes, 3 oboes, cor anglais/4th oboe, clarinet (E-flat), 2 soprano clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon
- 8 horns, 3 trumpets in B-flat, 2 trumpets in E-flat, 3 trombones, tenor tuba in B-flat (euphonium), tuba
- timpani, bass drum, 2 snare drums, cymbals, tenor drum, tam-tam
- 2 harps
- strings (including a longer solo violin part).
I. “Der Held“
The tone poem begins with a big gesture. Already here, the strings alone more than just fill the venue. It’s extremely intense music, prone to cause goose bumps! At the same time, in this concert, it never sounded overblown, certainly never overly heavy or “thick”.
II. “Des Helden Widersacher“
Entirely following the scheme employed by Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), Strauss uses Leitmotifs to refer to the “subjects” in his music: the Leitmotif for the hero stands at the very beginning of the tone poem. Here, a short motif consisting of parallel fifths stands for the hero’s adversaries. To me, this now sounds a bit trivial. But that is neither the composer’s not Fabio Luisi’s fault. In retrospect, this is the anticipation of a motif that the film industry has since used in countless scenes to indicate a threat.
In its outer parts, this movement / section is rhythmically very tricky, intricate: some kind of a chamber symphony in the woodwinds. Here, we heard an excellent performance, both in coordination, as well as in intonation.
III. “Des Helden Gefährtin“
“The Hero’s Companion” offered the immense pleasure of another, extended violin solo. And again here it was again Hanna Weinmeister pleasing the audience with her excellent and sensitive playing. It’s an expressive monologue, very narrative and multi-faceted—and at the same time technically very demanding, especially in intonation: very well done in this concert!
IV. “Des Helden Walstatt“
The entire tone poem is so typical of Strauss—even in the dissonant fighting scenes in “The Hero at Battle”. The chaos gradually shapes up to a broad, (almost) never-ending climax. Whoever did not feel goose bumps so far: here at the latest people in the audience must have felt cold shivers running down one’s back!
V. “Des Helden Friedenswerke“
Here, the music calms down to a chamber symphony in the woodwinds: with the Philharmonia Zurich, this felt almost plastic, really narrative. This continued in the final segment:
VI. “Des Helden Weltflucht und Vollendung“
The opera house felt like the right place for such pictorial, narrating music! The hero dies and enters transfiguration: very touching with the sad melody in the violins! The music also looks back, in reminiscences in the cor anglais and in the solo violin, with an underlying, distant funeral march. The ending is placatory, calm, peaceful. It’s nothing like the pomp with Siegfried’s death in Wagner’s “Siegfried“, but all the more sincerely touching. A disappearance into eternity, salvation and infinite happiness.
My sincere thanks to Philharmonia Zurich and Fabio Luisi, for such an impressive concert!
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.
InMo Yang’s performance of the Violin Concerto No.1 in D major, op.6 by Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840) can be found on YouTube as well — in several recordings. One of these is even directed by Fabio Luisi (though with a different orchestra):
InMo Yang’s encore in this concert, the Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice for Solo Violin, op.6 by Fritz Kreisler (1875 – 1962) can also be found on YouTube: