Yuja Wang, Klaidi Sahatçi, Thomas Grossenbacher
Rachmaninoff / Mendelssohn / Dvořák

Tonhalle Zurich, 2014-09-14


2014-09-16 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-03 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-26 — Brushed up for better readability

The Musicians

The opening week of the season 2014/15 at the Tonhalle in Zurich (see the post “Bringuier & Wang in Zurich, 2014-09-11” for a review of the second opening concert) ended with a chamber music event on Sunday, 2014-09-14, again featuring Yuja Wang.

Yuja Wang

For this season (2014/15), the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang is “Artist in residence” at the Tonhalle. This position / title entails a number of concerts (limited, though, considering the demand she faces all over the world), the first two of which were the opening concerts of the season. A third one was on Sunday, 2014-09-14, with chamber music: she was joined by two prominent musicians from the Tonhalle Orchestra, Klaidi Sahatçi (first concertmaster since 2009), and Thomas Grossenbacher (solo cellist). Such concerts are certainly a welcome opportunity for key people in the orchestra to have a chamber music appearance, apart from the daily routine in the orchestra.

Klaidi Sahatçi

Klaidi Sahatçi was born 1972 in Tirana / Albania, his last teacher was Salvatore Accardo, and he has previously held positions in the Orchestre National de Lyon (1995 – 2001, 2nd concertmaster), the Orchestra della Svizzera italiana (2001 – 2004, 2nd concertmaster), the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (2004 – 2007, 1st concertmaster), and finally the Orchestra della Scala di Milano (2007 – 2009, 1st concertmaster). He is also pursuing a career as chamber musician, and he is professor at the University of Music of Italian Switzerland in Lugano. Klaidi Sahatçi plays the violin “Wieniawski” by Antonio Stradivari (1719).

Thomas Grossenbacher

Thomas Grossenbacher was born 1963 in Switzerland and received his cello education with Claude Starck (Zurich) and David Geringas (Lübeck / Germany), 1988 – 1993 he spent in the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg, and since 1993 he is solo cellist at the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich. He is also teaching at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (ZHdK), and he is pursuing a career as chamber musician and as soloist.

Chamber music concert at Tonhalle Zurich, Yuja Wang / program title
Yuja Wang in the concert booklet, picture originally from yujawang.com

The Program

The program in this concert originally featured three compositions:

However, there was a last-minute change: we were told that upon request by Yuja Wang the first piano trio by Mendelssohn would be played, rather than the second one (and there was a rearrangement). Therefore, the first half of the program in the end was

This was a subscription concert, as one could clearly tell from the composition of the audience: elderly, possibly rich, snobby. My neighbors decided not to listen to Dvořák. After the Rachmaninoff, I heard a person in my back ask her neighbor: “This was the Dvořák, right?”. Well, as long as they support the concerts, we should not condemn them!

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943): Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor, op.19

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G minor op.19 was a harsh failure in the years following its completion in 1901. However, the piece has since become a pièce de résistance in the cello repertoire. It would probably be even more popular, if there wasn’t its very virtuosic piano part. The latter is not a real challenge for a talent such as Yuja Wang. But let’s start from the beginning:

I. Lento – Allegro moderato

I think the start of this sonata is quite a challenge for the cellist. The notes to play are not virtuosic at all, though: just two tones! First, a D followed by E♭, slow (lento), without piano accompaniment, p, if not pp initially: two beats until the piano joins in, one cannot really use vibrato, the notes are supposed to “sneak in”, the intonation must be perfect. Having played the violin in my youth, I can well imagine that if one is just a little too nervous, this can be really nerve-wrecking. Doing this at the very beginning of a concert makes this much worse!

In this concert, there was maybe a split second when one could sense the fragility of the first tone. But a few notes later the listener felt reassured: Thomas Grossenbacher “knows his business”. His cello tone is wonderful, differentiated, expressive, but he is never overpowering his part. Yet, his instrument remained audible even with the densest piano accompaniment throughout this sonata.

The piano part was mentioned already. It is (typical for Rachmaninoff) extremely demanding almost throughout the sonata. However, with Yuja Wang one didn’t really sense the virtuosity of her part. In the Allegro moderato part of the first movement, one sometimes felt that she is playing the accompaniment as easily and lightly as a Mendelssohn piano concerto. She never overpowered the accompaniment: compared to her, some pianists appear to make a permanent statement “listen how difficult this music is to play!”.

The only little downside in this interpretation was that the repeat of the first part (exposition) was not observed. The artists may have felt that with over 1.5 hours of music the concert was long enough already?

II. Allegro scherzando

The second movement, an Allegro scherzando, starts with fast tremoli in the accompaniment and pizzicati in the cello. An almost ghastly atmosphere is evoked. The left hand of the piano introduces a fast motif with off-beat triplets which the cello then echoes. This type of “quick dialog” returns frequently in this movement. The cello part is very tricky, because one needs to play on-beat pizzicati and then very quickly switch to off-beat triplets. No problem at all here, the music never lost momentum. There are meno mosso segments in this movement with a more lyrical character. Here, I had the subtle sensation that as a fast-moving person Yuja Wang wanted to keep pushing forward, while Thomas Grossenbacher occasionally may have wished a little more time for an expressive ritenuto, or for some more rubato. But I don’t think this discrepancy was too apparent.

III. Andante

The Andante was wonderfully lyrical (to me, one of Rachmaninoff’s most beautiful inventions!), Yuja Wang managed to bring out the melody amidst all the fast and far-reaching figures in both hands. She was able to maintain an intense, expressive dialog with the cello.

IV. Allegro mosso

The last movement, an Allegro mosso, is again written with staggering difficulties in the piano part. No problem for Yuja Wang; she demonstrated that she can apply “power”, too, in the expressive passages with their ff climax.

Overall, the memory that I kept from this performance is one of a Rachmaninoff of the subtle, often also soft, lyrical tones — very well done!

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, op.49

Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No.1 in D minor, op.49 was completed in 1839 and was first performed in 1840, with the composer at the piano. The composition was an immediate success and received highest praise by Robert Schumann. For this and the following composition, Yuja Wang and Thomas Grossenbacher were joined by Klaidi Sahatçi. Whatever the reasons for the last-minute switch to the first trio may have been: there is an online, live recording that demonstrates that Yuja Wang offers an excellent rendition of op.66 (originally in the program, see above) as well, especially in the lyrical parts.

I. Molto allegro ed agitato

I sensed that there were some concessions to the late switch in this performance, e.g.: the first movement was played considerably below the 3/4 = 80 that Mendelssohn specifies. The agitato could certainly be felt from the piano part, but the overall tempo feeling (to me) was less than Molto allegro ed agitato.

There was also some distraction from the page turner’s fight with Yuja’s score which had pages wanting to flip back all the time. This does not speak for many preparation sessions. Still, Yuja definitely knew her part inside out, and her two companions probably can play this almost by sight-reading. Also, it seemed that it took the three musicians a while to “find together”, to sound like a chamber ensemble.

II. Andante con moto tranquillo

All this was forgotten when Yuja started the second movement, Andante con moto tranquillo. This appeared as a wonderful song without words, very intimate, lyrical, singing in all three parts. Maybe the vibrato in the violin was on the border of being too nervous? Interestingly, also that movement was substantially slower than the 1/4 = 72 that Mendelssohn specifies. The artists appeared to ignore both the Andante and the con moto in the annotation. Overall, it was a wonderful rendition, even though it may not have been quite the composer’s intent. Upon listening through other interpretations, one gets the impression that taking this too slow is a common / inherent danger with this movement.

III. Scherzo, Leggiero e vivace

The Scherzo, Leggiero e vivace, started like a whirlwind! An incredible contrast to the preceding movement. Yuja appeared to take an amazingly fast tempo. Mendelssohn asked for even a little more (3/8 = 120), but he had different pianos, with lighter mechanics. Indeed, one could sense that this was the real limit of what the Steinway would do. Even though Yuja mastered her part almost perfectly, the fast runs and figurations were in danger of “flowing together”. Also, the piano part was losing transparency, and the two string instruments were in danger of “drowning” in the piano sound, given that also string instruments don’t produce that much sound when played spiccato at such a tempo.

But that’s not the fault of the artists: Mendelssohn’s intent can only be approached with a fortepiano from the early 19th century. Even there, judging from his metronome annotation, the composer intended this to be played “as fast as humanly possible”. In that sense, the artists fulfilled the composer’s intent, given modern instruments.

IV. Finale: Allegro assai appassionato

With an annotation of 1/2 = 100, the last movement, Finale: Allegro assai appassionato, has the same tempo issue as the previous one, though from its texture it is more transparent than the Scherzo, full of passion and emotion. It’s an excellent conclusion for a masterpiece, and excellently, brilliantly played by the three artists, the long applause was absolutely justified!

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904): Piano Trio in E minor, op.90, B.166, “Dumky”, B.166

The Composition

Dvořák’s Piano Trio No.4 in E minor, op.90, first published in 1894. It is very different from the other works in this concert. It has six, not four movements. The movements don’t follow a classical form scheme. Finally, with the exception of the fifth movement, all movements combine slow and fast parts. There is, however, one unifying principle for all movements: they all are Dumky. The Dumka (pl. Dumky) is a Ukrainian dance. Therefore, even Dvořák used to call this composition Dumky Trio. Most of the movements not only have multiple tempo segments, but as typical Slavonic music they are characterized by frequent tempo alterations, accelerandi, ritardandi, ritenuti, etc.

The Movements

Dvořák’s Piano Trio op.90 features six movements:

  1. Lento Maestoso — Allegro quasi doppio movimento
  2. Poco Adagio — Vivace non troppo — Vivace
  3. Andante — Vivace non troppo — Allegretto
  4. Andante moderato — Allegretto scherzando — Quasi Tempo di Marcia
  5. Allegro
  6. Lento maestoso

Interpretation

The interpretation of this piece by Yuja Wang, Klaidi Sahatçi, and Thomas Grossenbacher was very good. They really brought out the many colors & moods that Dvořák composed into this music! I particularly liked the sound of the violin con sordino. The mute is used in several movements. The result is a wonderfully soft, singing tone, supported by the piano playing an extreme ppp: very nice! In the fifth movement, the string instruments have several passages written as staccato and ff / con forza that are often heard very rough, if not scratching. Sahatçi and Grossenbacher managed to keep those still sounding — well-sounding even!

Minor Criticism

I have one little reservation. One feature that most artists (and listeners?) regard as “typically Slavonic” are short, “spontaneous” rubati, e.g., a short ritenuto for building up tension for the following accelerando. One could certainly feel those in the performance. However, I felt that such “Slavonic elements” were predominantly coming from the strings, not so much from the piano. Yuja is a “fast person” and is rather moving forward, and some of the accelerandi in the piano were a bit on the strong / almost hasty side. Sure, Yuja observes any annotated ritenuto, but I’m thinking of extra rubato here. I’m maybe also comparing this with “classic” interpretations such as the Beaux Arts Trio, where such impulses (and ritenuti) would predominantly come from Menahem Pressler at the piano.

One might ask: why add even more rubato or ritenuti — aren’t there enough in the score already? However, one should keep in mind that these are dances. What I was sometimes missing was a certain dance feeling (e.g., more “natural fluidity”), primarily in the piano part. Perhaps Yuja Wang needs some more exposure to Slavonic dances? One last point: in the Dvořák, there were occasional, minor intonation issues, primarily in exposed, high passages in the violin. It’s nothing major, maybe just some degree of “affective intonation”?

Conclusion

Minor elements of criticism aside: the concert overall was a success, the audience was enthusiastic. There was no encore. I’m not even sure I would have wanted one, as we had just enjoyed more than 90 minutes of a rich musical experience. There is no point in overloading such an evening!


Addendum:

For  the compositions in this concert I have compared selected recordings in separate Blog posts:



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