Pinchas Zukerman, Lahav Shani / Rotterdam Philharmonic
Bloch / Bruch / Brahms
Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 2018-10-25
The Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent Classics” organized this concert in the Tonhalle Maag. It was their first concert in the season 2018/2019 (featuring a total of over 20 concerts, split between Zurich, Lucerne, and Geneva).
In a good part of their concerts, the Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent” offers a “pre-concert” of approximately 30 minutes. This is free for holders of a ticket for the main concert. In these recitals, prior to the main event, the Foundation presents promising, future artists. As the artistic director of the foundation, Misha Damev, pointed out, the foundation takes these pre-recitals as important as the main concert. I’m discussing that evening’s pre-concert in the bottom of this post. With this pre-concert, the overall for the concert looked as follows:
- Pre-Concert: Anton Mecht Spronk, Cello
- Bloch: Hiver – Printemps, deux poèmes pour orchestre (1905)
- Bruch: Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.26
- Brahms: Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98
The (main) concert featured the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (see also Wikipedia)—an orchestra which just celebrates its 100th anniversary. Originally founded as a private society, the orchestra has had a series of notable chief conductors:
- 1973 – 1979: Edo de Waart (*1941)
- 1979 – 1982: David Zinman (*1936)
- 1983 – 1991: James Conlon (*1950)
- 1991 – 1995: Jeffrey Tate (1943 – 2017)
- 1995 – 2008: Valery Gergiev (*1953)
- 2008 – 2018: Yannick Nézet-Séguin (*1975)
- 2018+: Lahav Shani (*1989, see also Wikipedia)
Lahav Shani, Conductor
After an appearance as guest conductor in 2016, the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra unanimously elected the Israeli Lahav Shani as their next chief conductor (while Yannick Nézet-Séguin retains the title of honorary conductor). Lahav Shani seems one of the strongest rising stars among today’s upcoming, young conductors. Shani started his musical education as a pianist, then also studied double bass. At the Hochschule für Musik “Hanns Eisler” in Berlin, he further studied orchestral conducting. Later, Daniel Barenboim (*1942) became his mentor for conducting.
3 years after Lahav Shani’s 2007 debut as a pianist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the conductor Zubin Mehta (*1936) engaged the young artist for a tour, as pianist and assistant conductor. Shani went on to win competitions. In 2015, he worked with both the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Now he is principal guest conductor with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Shani currently lives in Berlin and continues to appear as solo pianist.
Pinchas Zukerman, Violin
The Israeli violinist Pinchas Zukerman (*1948) is looking back to a long and successful career as violinist, violist, as well as conductor. I particularly remember his recordings as chamber musician, with artists such as Itzhak Perlman (*1945), Vladimir Ashkenazy (*1937), and Lynn Harrell (*1944). Zukerman plays the “Dushkin” violin of 1742, by Guarneri del Gesù (1698 – 1744).
Bloch: Hiver – Printemps, deux poèmes pour orchestre (1905)
The Swiss-born American composer Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959) started off as a violinist at age 9. He studied in Brussels, with teachers such as Eugène Ysaÿe (1858 – 1931), continued his studies in Frankfurt, then moved to Paris, back to Geneva (where he was born), finally settling in the United States, where he became a prominent teacher. Bloch’s composition style is somewhat unique. Most of his compositions heavily draw on Bloch’s Jewish heritage.
Bloch’s two poems for orchestra, “Hiver — Printemps“ from 1905 bear a strong influence from the style of Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918). The contrast between the two movements is easily derived from their titles.
The concert started 15 minutes late, as the car with the instruments got stuck on the road to Zurich. This must have cost both the musicians and the organizers lots of nerves! The venue was sold out—for good reason, as we will see.
The orchestra used an antiphonal arrangement with double basses (5) behind the first violins on the left, followed by cellos, viola, and the second violins on the right-hand side.
Despite his youth, Lahav Shani conducted calmly, considerate, with natural, flowing movements. The time up to the beginning of the concert must have been extremely hectic, full of tension—yet, the conductor seemed entirely in control, instantly making people forget the past pressure. The orchestra presented a light, transparent soundscape—which of course is also due to Bloch’s disposition. Initially, the music is retained, like a frozen landscape. More incisive tones appear in the high woodwinds, but Shani keeps the calm pace, never seems to rush. But then, a wind appears to start blowing, the music expresses bone-chillingly cold temperatures.
The weather calms down again, leaving room for expectation, even though the wind shortly revives. The tension is growing towards the approaching of warmer temperatures. The solo violin depicts the cautious appearance of first signs of spring: shy blooming of early flowers, maybe birds starting to sing—everything seems to wait for spring to arrive. In the performance, I noted that excellent balance in the orchestra, and the well-controlled, flowing dynamics. Lahav Shani amazes in how he is able to keep the calm, and to adjust the volume, the sound to the hall—presumably without any prior rehearsal in this venue!
What a change in atmosphere: sunshine, birds singing, blooming everywhere! But also here, Lahav Shani keeps the calm in the basic pace. he is shaping phrases and dynamics with his left-hand movements. His right hand gives the beat clearly, yet with gentle waving. these flowing movement create their direct response in the orchestra, the music. Even without “military” precision in the conducting, the orchestra “magically” follows its master’s intent. This persists through the revival of nature in the build-up to a broad, impressive climax. After this, the music returns to a serene, calm atmosphere, for a lucid ending: was it just me picturing butterflies dancing in the air?
There are various tempo changes in the score, with intermediate, lively passages (movements in birds, leaves?). But still, the performance creates the illusion of retaining (or always returning to) the same fundamental pace: excellent, impressive, masterful!
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
The Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, op.26 by Max Bruch (1838 – 1920) has long been one of the most popular romantic violin concertos. It was written and premiered 1866. It has maybe seen some “over-use” in the last century, but it still remains very popular to this day. The concerto certainly is one of Bruch’s most well-known and loved compositions. The work has three movements—an extensive Prelude and a Finale surround the central, slow movement:
- Prelude: Allegro moderato (in G minor)
- Adagio (in E♭ major)
- Finale: Allegro energico (in G major)
I. Prelude: Allegro moderato
With his 70 years of age, a long and successful career to look back on, and an instrument which he knows would never fail, Pinchas Zukerman firmly stood on the ground, relaxed. And that calm translated into his opening cadenzas: the big, warm, characterful tone of the Guarneri seemed to fill the venue, instantly catching the listener’s attention.
Zukerman played with a full, naturally swaying vibrato. From his recordings, I did not expect any different. Actually, the vibrato did not hurt in this concerto. Maybe in the highest positions it occasionally was a bit prominent. In the lower range, however, Zukerman kept it well under control. For a good reason, of course, given the frequent use of the empty G and D strings. There was no rush in Zukerman’s playing. He did not over-accentuate, but rather broadened upbeats, single and double punctuations. An expressive, warm interpretation devoid of superficial moments, with broad dynamic phrases, harmonious, above all technicalities.
The orchestra matched the solo performance with an emphatic accompaniment, full of momentum in every phrase. Shani cooperated closely with the soloist (who often turned around to watch the orchestra). The transitions between solo and accompaniment were seamless and natural throughout.
Here, in this movement which some may see as infamously sweet, it took me a few moments to get used to the expressive vibrato. But then, this seemed to fit the interpretation well, adequately complemented with occasional, harmonious portamento. Yes, portamento can be beautiful, if used consciously, and with care! Zukerman’s performance certainly was very expressive—yet, not overly emotional, devoid of mawkishness and excess sweetness. And the warm, full tone of the instrument was ideal for this music, filling every phrase with expression, down to the smallest notes.
In the center of the movement, at [F] in the score, at the modulation to G♭ major (pp, violas and second violin voices split), Lani slightly reduced the tempo. The orchestra seemed to open a view into a world beyond: a magical moment! In the subsequent triplet passage, the soloist picked up the original pace again. The music started building up to the broad, emphatic, almost overwhelming climax. The music calms down again in the final solo, and the last recurrence of the popular theme was expressive, yet not overly sweet or mellow. Overall, a moving, intense performance. It somehow reconciled me with the strength of the vibrato.
III. Finale: Allegro energico
Here, Lani selected a fluent tempo—without rushing, though. And again, the coordination with the soloist was excellent throughout. With the latter, I had only one minor reservation: the semiquaver motifs in the main theme felt a tad fast, as if they were written as acciaccaturas. And some of the tied, short motifs appeared a bit yanked off. Maybe the tempo was at the limit for the articulation in the demanding solo part? Apart from that, the solo was full of momentum, never too urging.
The orchestra obviously enjoyed indulging in expressive, broadened climaxes. The musicians seemed to breathe with the music, picked up additional momentum at the con fuoco. Finally, with the stringendo leading into the coda, the performance, the music turned really enthralling. The applause was almost frenetic!
True, my ideal performance would be one with less vibrato. Nevertheless, Zukerman and Shani offered a coherent, consistent interpretation: I really enjoyed this music!
Overall Rating: ★★★★
Encore — Beethoven: Violin Sonata No.7 in C minor, op.30/2
The Bruch concerto obviously retains its popularity with the audience: the applause was long and lasting. Of course, that also (maybe primarily) reflects the quality of the performance. Zukerman wanted to perform an encore—with Lahav Shani as pianist! So, they moved the Steinway D-274 grand from the right edge of the podium halfway towards the center, the lid fully open, the tail pointing to the conductor’s stand. Pinchas Zukerman stood in the rear of Lahav Shani. This “inverted” arrangement likely helped the balance, and with the excellent, analytical acoustics of the venue, this setup was just fine!
Fun Music—A Last Dance Prior to Brahms Earnest Fourth?
The two artists didn’t just play for the audience—they obviously very much enjoyed themselves! The encore was the third movement, Scherzo: Allegro from the Sonata for Piano and Violin No.7 in C minor, op.30/2 by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827). In an earlier post, I have written a detailed comparison of various recordings of this sonata. So, I won’t spend more words on introducing the piece.
The Scherzo is a true fun movement, a joking, fast, syncopated interplay between piano and violin—quite virtuosic. Beethoven allegedly considered removing this piece from the sonata, as it didn’t fit the character of the other movements. Luckily, he didn’t!
Not only the music is true fun and pure joy, but so was the performance by Pinchas Zukerman and Lahav Shani—and the two artists had their fun playing it! They started cautiously, but soon could not resist the jumping, swift and sparkling syncopes. In the end, there may have been an element of exaggeration, of caricature or last dance even in their performance, even in the Trio. But who could possibly resist so much fun?
With the Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent Classics”, intermissions at Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag are more than that. As the space in the foyer is limited, the artistic director of the Foundation, Misha Damev, is regularly offering a public, on-stage interview with a member of the orchestra. This way, a part of the audience stays in the concert hall, reducing the congestion at the bar.
That evening, he interviewed the Managing Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, George Wiegel, who offered interesting insights into the history of the orchestra. Misha Damev is an excellent interviewer and an “insider to the business”. The level of the conversation, as well as the scope and quality of his questions were perfectly suited for the occasion. This was well worth skipping the wait in the noisy crowd in the foyer!
Brahms: Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98
The Symphony No.4 in E minor, op.98 is the last symphony that Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897) wrote, 1884. The symphony has four movements:
- Allegro non troppo
- Andante moderato
- Allegro giocoso
- Allegro energico e passionato
A detailed analysis is available via Wikipedia. For now, just briefly: among the movements, the first three are in sonata form (except that the Andante moderato has no development section), the last one is an extensive set of 30 variations, with a coda.
I. Allegro non troppo
Now was the time to focus on orchestra and conductor! Lahav Shani conducted from memory. This gave him the opportunity to maintain close interaction with the orchestra. The musicians in turn formed a single entity with their leader, with the first desks doing an excellent job at coordinating the string voices. It was symptomatic how the musician at the first desk of the second violins was sitting on the edge of the chair! Also, throughout the symphony, the antiphonal arrangement proved an excellent choice for the frequent exchange of motifs between the two violin voices.
Shani took the p beginning cautiously, then gradually built up, gently accelerating up to the second theme in bar 45 ([B] in the score), where he again released some of the tension. This was characteristic for the entire performance: that breathing with the music, the natural agogics, the blooming up in climaxes. Lahav Shani avoided harsh contrasts, transitions were absolutely natural and seamless. Also, the dynamic balance within the orchestra (e.g., strings vs. wind instruments) was excellent, as was the richness in colors.
At all times, the conductor maintained excellent sonority, down to pp, e.g., at transition from the strings to the woodwinds in bar 188 (after [H] in the score), or around bar 246 (the ppp at [L] in the score). Climaxes, on the other hand, weren’t just loud, but intense, and loaded with expression.
II. Andante moderato
To me, this movement indicated how Lahav Shani was shaping the music in the very moment of the performance. This was far more than recalling instructions from endless rehearsals. Rather, it showed that an excellent orchestra is able to realize the conductor’s intent during a performance. I sensed a performance from the heart, with emphasis, and with both calm and tension, even suspense. And again: this harmonious breathing with the music, throughout the ensemble!
On top of that, it was a real pleasure to follow the excellent wind soloists. In particular, the horns were outstanding with their smooth sound, and even more so the clarinet, which was able to maintain the ultimate smoothness down to the finest ppp.
Other remarkable moments in this movement included the intense singing with beautiful, silky string sonority at bar 88ff (poco f espressivo legato). And the suspense that built up in the ppp after [F] (bars 106ff) leading up to the extended general rest in bar 110. Here, the tension momentarily seemed almost unbearable, as if the hearts stopped beating. Fortunately, the subsequent coda / transition bars offered consolation and relief.
III. Allegro giocoso
Enthusiastic, emphatic playing—virtuosic, with precision, full of momentum, often dance-like, transparent and light in the softer parts. The tempo was fast, not excessively, though. It was maybe approaching the limit, just where the articulation was still clear. The difference in tempo to the Poco meno presto was quite distinct. Still, the tempo relation seemed to make sense. As a composition, the movement is a stroke of a genius—who could not be fascinated, enthralled by this?
IV. Allegro energico e passionato
The beginning of the last movement seemed determined, forward-moving. As a composition, it’s not an easy movement, with its slightly bulky moments, the maybe somewhat restless mood, the changes in rhythm and atmosphere. Yet, it was fascinating to see how Lahav Shani managed to keep the ensemble in line with minimal effort: he gave the wind soloists room to shape phrases with agogics. The performance of the solo flute and of the trombones stood out in particular.
Around the central E major segment, I felt that the performance, the orchestra temporarily lost a bit of its coherence. However, this can definitely be attributed to the stress and fatigue from the travel and the late arrival: it must have been a long day for the musicians! After the music returned to E minor, certainly at [F] in the score (around bar 145), the orchestra appeared to have re-gained its coherence. Lahav Shani convincingly led the ensemble towards the coda, with a really compelling transition to the final Più Allegro.
Overall Rating: ★★★★½
Particularly considering the troubles the orchestra went through in getting to the concert hall, the delay, etc., the performance was truly excellent. I’m looking forward to future encounters with both the orchestra and Lahav Shani, an outstanding talent as conductor!
Anton Mecht Spronk, Cello
The pre-concert (see above) featured a promising, young cellist, Anton Mecht Spronk (*1994). Anton Spronk started playing the cello at age 4. He received his main education on the instrument in the conservatories in Den Haag and in Amsterdam. In 2012 he started studying with Thomas Grossenbacher (*1963) at the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts). Currently, he is continuing his studies in Berlin. He has attended a series of master classes with notable cellists and has won several prizes at competitions in 2014 and 2015. Anton Spronk has successfully launched a career as solo cellist and appears at notable festivals. Together with violinist Larissa Cidlinsky, he has even founded his own festival in Bavaria.
Anton Spronk plays a cello from 1865, by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (1798 – 1875). He receives support by the Foundation “Migros Kulturprozent Classics”.
For this recital / pre-concert, Anton Spronk chose one single work, Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C major, op.119. His duo partner at the piano (a Steinway B-211) was
Petya Mihneva, Piano
In 2009, the Bulgarian pianist Petya Mihneva (born 1982) received a diploma with distinction in piano chamber music from the ZHdK (Zurich University of the Arts). After winning prizes in Zurich and in Bulgaria, she has started a career as chamber musician and concert pianist.
The Cello Sonata in C major, op.119 by Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953) is a formidable piece of chamber music. I had the pleasure of attending performances of this composition already twice, both times in Lucerne: in a debut recital on 2015-08-27, and at a duo recital in the KKL on 2016-01-17. So, this choice of repertoire was a very pleasant surprise. I have written about the piece in the two concert reviews just mentioned. The sonata features three movements:
- Andante grave (1/4=54) — Moderato animato (1/4=100) — Poco meno mosso — Moderato animato (1/4=100) — Andante — Andante grave, come prima — Allegro moderato — Meno mosso — Più mosso
- Moderato (1/4=96) — Andante dolce (1/4=60) — Moderato primo
- Allegro, ma non troppo — Andantino (1/4=92) — Allegro, ma non troppo
The size of the audience is limited by the venue—in this case, the “Klangraum” upstairs from the foyer, holding maybe 150 people. There was a small audience of some 60 – 70 people in this recital.
I should insert a note on the acoustics: sadly, this is not the ideal location for this type of duo recital. Sure, the cello presented its beautiful, full, rounded, dark tone. It easily filled the venue with its sound. Unfortunately, despite the fully open lid, the Steinway B-211 (a mid-size grand piano) appeared far less favored by the venue. It often seemed to have a hard time matching up to the great tone of the cello. The tuning of the piano was OK, not brilliant, though. And the instrument wasn’t very clear in the lowest bass—a question of intonation?
There was also an occasional, slight irritation by a ticking noise from the back of the hall, presumably from the heating.
I. Andante grave — Moderato animato — Poco meno mosso — Allegro moderato — Meno mosso — Più mosso
From the first note, Anton Spronk revealed the huge tone of his instrument, playing with an expressive, swaying vibrato. The cello tone was probably (excessively) over-amplified by the small dimensions of this shoebox-shaped venue. The piano appeared very soft, subtle, gentle in comparison. True, Prokofiev asks for piena voce for the cello, while the piano initially stays pp up to mp. However, the acoustics seemed to over-emphasize this imbalance. Even in the 4-string pizzicato where the piano is playing f, the cello easily beat the Steinway in tone.
At  in the score, the artists switched to a distinctly faster tempo—why? The singing passage in the cello would easily justify a moderate rallentando here! The tempo was slightly broadening for climaxes in phrases, and the cellist took back the tone a bit for lyrical segments. Still, there was somewhat of an unrest in the Andante grave part.
The Moderato animato was maybe too animated, as especially the piano seemed to push the tempo, not leaving time for peak notes: I missed the rit. and the Poco meno mosso in the score. Petya Mihneva definitely is very agile at the piano. She showed no technical weaknesses. However, up to the cadenza-like Più mosso ending (very virtuosic and clear playing in the cello!), the performance often felt a little restrained, despite the (occasionally almost too) fluent tempo. I felt that in the expression, the artists could easily have been a little more forthcoming, more powerful, if not occasionally playfully aggressive. Maybe it was a rather romantic view, rather than what I expected for a piece by Prokofiev?
II. Moderato — Andante dolce — Moderato primo
I enjoyed the excellent sonority of the cello, now in excellent balance with the piano, despite the acoustic adversities. Maybe the performance was a little too earnest, rather than joking and fun? Also here, an occasional momentary ritenuto, a little surplus in agogics (and fun!) would have helped. The “Trio” (Andante dolce) appeared as a strong contrast: singing, expressive, very relaxed. Overall, I definitely liked the second movement more than the first one.
III. Allegro, ma non troppo — Andantino — Allegro, ma non troppo
As already in the second movement, I again missed some irony, maybe caricature aspect. The piano could have been more aggressive: it sometimes felt too well-behaved. On the other hand, Petya Mihneva was excellent at the gentle, soft intermediate tones. The cello at times appeared to express retained serenity, was almost placid. In the transition to the initial theme, at  in the score, the performance seemed to lose some of the tension. Again, adding some irony might have helped here. That second instance of the theme also could easily have been more playful, frisky, especially in the cello. The piano, on the other hand, deserved a little more power, if not exaggeration.
Technically, though, the performance was excellent, particularly on the cello. One should keep in mind that both parts (but predominantly the piano) are technically rather difficult, challenging. With growing experience, I think that both artists will be in a position to dare taking more risks in this beautiful sonata. Despite all my quibbles (minor, overall): congrats to the two artists, for this impressive performance!