Friday, June 03, 2016

Khatia Buniatishvili, Paavo Järvi / Orchestre de Paris Dubugnon / Schumann / Shostakovich
Rolf Kyburz

I have written a review for this concert on, in German. This review is not a translation of the Bachtrack review, the rights of which remain with the German review is condensed from a larger set of notes that I collected from this concert. As I wanted my non-German speaking readers to be able to read about my concert experience as well, I have taken my original notes as a loose basis for this posting, hereby adding additional material not included with the Bachtrack review.

The “star of the evening” on this day was—the Orchestre de Paris, founded 1967 as a successor to the Société des concerts du Conservatoire (itself founded 1828), one of Paris’ prominent orchestras. Initially directed by Charles Munch, who was succeeded by Herbert von Karajan, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Semyon Bychkov, Christoph von Dohnányiand Christoph Eschenbach (more information on the orchestra on Wikipedia). In 2010, Paavo Järvi took over the musical direction of the orchestra—he also was the conductor in this concert: Paavo Järvi was born 1962 in Tallinn, Estonia; his father, Neeme Järvi (*1937), is also a well-known conductor (see also Wikipedia for more information on Paavo Järvi). The main residence for the orchestra now is the newly opened Philharmonie de Paris.

The soloist in this concert was the Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili (*1987). Khatia started studying piano at age 3, with her mother as teacher, and at age 6 she already made a first concert appearance in Tbilisi, and at age 10 she started giving concerts in various parts of the world: a true child prodigy! Further studies led her to Austria (1999 – 2002), and after graduating from the Central Music School in Tbilisi, she entered the Tbilisi State Conservatory in 2004. Around 2010 (after winning several prizes at competitions), she launched an international career as concert pianist; she now lives in Paris (more information again on Wikipedia). My first encounter with Khatia Buniatishvili was in a concert on 2009-10-04 in the old church (Alte Kirche / Künstlerhaus) in Boswil, where she gave a piano recital / duo recital with Walter Delahunt stepping in for Martha Argerich, at very short notice. I don’t remember the repertoire in that concert (except that she played—I think—Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.7), but I do remember that I was fascinated by her fast fingers: I had a stage seat, two meters from the piano, but it was impossible to follow her hands & fingers! In the aftermath, that recital in 2009 anticipated some of the experience in this concert at the Tonhalle Zurich, see below.

To this concert: just the view of the Orchestre de Paris (full staffing 119 musicians, according to the orchestra’s Website) was unusual for Zurich: the men in the ensemble were all dressed in half-long (or short?) frock coats, contrasting from both the Tonhalle Orchestra (usually standard suit) and the Philharmonia Zurich (tailcoats, at least in Philharmonic concerts): that detail alone indicated that the concert experience would not be the same as with the local orchestras. The podium had been enlarged for this large ensemble, plus, the piano in the Schumann concerto was placed on a second podium extension.
Richard Dubugnon: Caprice for Orchestra, op.72/2

Richard Dubugnon was born 1968 in Lausanne, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He studied history in Montpellier, and at the same time he studied composition and playing the double bass. After only two years he is accepted to the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique de Paris; he then moved to London for seven years, where in 1997 he obtained the Master degree in composition from the Royal Academy of Music. 1997 – 2002 Richard Dubugnon was teaching composition at the Purcell School, and in 2003 he moved back to Paris, rapidly gaining reputation as a composer. He has received various prizes for his work, and he has been elected Composer in Residence with the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne (2013/2014) and with the Musikkollegium Winterthur (2016/2017). This information is collected from the French section of Wikipedia.

Richard Dubugnon’s Caprice for Orchestra No.2 is a work that was commissioned by the Orchestre de Paris—a piece of just below 14 minutes. As the program notes (produced by the organizer, Migros Kulturprozent) explain, Dubugnon actually prefers bigger forms, but he typically gets commissioned for pieces of around 10 minutes (considered to be “digestible” by / acceptable for traditional audiences), and so, he is now collecting such pieces in his op.72, Caprice No.2 being the second part of ultimately a bigger work (the size of which will depend on the number of segments he gets commissioned for). The Caprice No.2 is tailor-made for the large, rich setting of the Orchestre de Paris: it is an entertaining, multi-faceted composition. My experience in this concert was obviously without score and unprepared (except that I tried familiarizing myself with a few of Dubugnon’s earlier compositions); let me therefore just describe my impressions, my intuitive thoughts and associations while listening to this:

The beginning of the Caprice is bold, supported by the strong, rich sound of the wind section—but the music soon retracts into a more internalized segment; the composition then follows a path of alternation between extroverted richness (typically with strong contributions from the brass and percussion sections) and softer, often almost intimate sections, mostly dominated by the silky, homogeneous sound of the large string formation; one finds comfortably walking basses, as well as capricious dialogs between violins and the woodwinds. A passage with xylophone and celesta reminds me of music by Paul Dukas, orchestral groupings appear to fight each other; there are jazzy segments, but also colorful, crowded scenes, inspired by aleatoric music, grumbling thunders, enthralling percussion sequences—all ending in two very strong drum beats. Paavo Järvi effortlessly mastered the frequent changes in tempo and time signature. Richard Dubugnon writes largely atonal music, occasionally polytonal, but never repellingly dissonant—the music does not follow any traditional harmonic course. In the first audition, the unprepared listener will not catch distinct, melodic elements, and so, one may miss elements that may help recognizing an internal structure. In the aftermath, I read in the program notes that this is a set of variations—I failed to recognize this in the first, unprepared impression. However, I don’t see this as defect, as I could enjoy the diverse expressions in this intense, rich soundscape also without the knowledge about internal ordering principles.
Robert Schumann: Piano Concerto in a minor, op.54

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) completed his Piano Concerto in a minor, op.54, in 1845, at the height of his career. The concerto features three movements:
Allegro affettuoso (4/4, 1/2 = 84) — Andante espressivo (6/4, 3/4 = 72) — Allegro (Tempo I) — Più animato, Passionato — Tempo I — Cadenza — Allegro molto
Intermezzo, Andantino grazioso (2/4, 1/8 = 120)
Allegro vivace (3/4, 3/4 = 72)

The concerto was first performed 1846, with Robert’s wife Clara Schumann (a superb pianist!) at the piano. For this performance in Zurich now, the seat at the Steinway D was occupied by Khatia Buniatishvili: a visual study about “Le Rouge et le Noir“, without connection to Stendhal, of course—but unfortunately, (in my opinion) also with only limited connection to the composer, Robert Schumann. That latter impression wasn’t just a failure to fulfill specific expectations on this concerto, but I felt that the soloist had totally moved away from the current trend towards seeking the original sound, away from any attempt to explore the composer’s intent, as laid down in the musical score. To me, that was obvious already from the very first chord cascades, which were vastly faster than notated, the short semiquaver chords in the dotted rhythm were degraded to superficial, short acciaccaturas. Thereafter, the orchestra overcompensated by playing too slow, and the subsequent solo (espressivo) was even slower, extremely lyrical and mellow, veiled, dreamy, faraway. Where the piano played accompanying figures, these were so blurred that they could barely be heard—also because the orchestra was rather loud, and too big (6 double basses!). Then, when the piano set in with marcato octave parallels, the pace suddenly changed to (too) fast again. Pretty much in general, the soloist used extremes in the tempo, switching between extremely lyrical and extremely fast and virtuosic. Her playing was technically superb, but often too smooth and perfect, and I missed detailed articulation (let alone signs of Klangrede!), agogics (I think the difference between rubato and agogics evades her!), elaboration in secondary voices.

The Intermezzo probably was the best part of the interpretation, though really late-romantic, also in the orchestral sound, the solo part very, very lyrical and mellow: the attribute “female” may seem appropriate (politically incorrect, though?), considering that the soloist is playing out that aspect also from her visual appearance. Nevertheless, also in this movement I missed the agogics, that fine play with retaining and accelerating within a bar.

The final movement was extreme in its focus on fast playing, with superficial, blurred runs and figures, lacking all detail in articulation and phrasing, merely perhaps aiming to be elegant and light—which aren’t attributes that I typically associate with Robert Schumann’s music. Overall, that movement felt like a permanent chase through the score, often to the point where the orchestra started to have problems following—my conclusion: the piano was the first to cross the finish line, closely followed by the orchestra—Schumann fell by the wayside. In general, I think that as a listener one should be open towards personal, maybe unexpected interpretations—but these should remain within the scope of the composer’s text in the score, as otherwise, the result is a paraphrase at best, a “concerto after Schumann”.

Needless to say that at least a fraction of the audience did not resist the fascination of an extreme performance: Khatia Buniatishvili rewarded the applause with the Prélude No.4 in e minor (Largo) from the 24 Préludes, op.28, by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849). This may have set a record in slowness, but it was definitely atmospheric and dreamy: I liked it more than any part of the preceding concerto.
Dmitri Shostakovitch: Symphony No.6 in b minor, op.54

Dmitri Shostakovitch (1906 – 1975) wrote his Symphony No.6 in b minor, op.54, in 1939—it was first performed in Leningrad in the same year. The symphony features three movements:
Largo (4/4, 1/8 = 72) — Moderato (1/4 = 66) — Largo (1/4 = 44)
Allegretto (3/8, 3/8 = 104)
Presto (2/2, 1/2 = 168)

With this symphony, after the intermission, Paavo Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris could finally play out their full strengths, and those in the audience who left after the concerto were thoroughly proven wrong: they missed the best part of the evening! Shostakovich’s music may often feel exceedingly motoric, if not (initially) repelling—however, his Sixth Symphony is a thoroughly serene, often joyful masterpiece—the composer commented: “I wanted to convey in it the moods of spring, joy, youth“. The orchestra was brilliant, with an excellent wind section, both woodwinds (flutes, cor anglais) and the brass section, the strings (particularly violins) were superb in their dense, homogeneous sound.

The beginning of the first movement reminded me of Bruckner; the music that followed is rich in rhythmic differentiation, playing out quaver duplets and triplets against punctuated crotchets, etc. against each other; frequent, cleverly placed changes in time leave the listener “suspended”, (seemingly) without a persistent, thorough rhythmic base. Paavo Järvi’s direction was firm, with large, flowing gestures: clearly, he was in full control—with such a large orchestra, the concert master can’t really achieve much in terms of coordination and secondary guidance. To me, it was an excellent, absolutely compelling interpretation, up to the last bars, where the music fades away into silence. My only, really minor reservation was that around [28] in the score (Sostenuto), the celesta was maybe a bit too prominent / pervasive.

The second movement (Allegretto) puts high demands on the woodwinds, in terms of agility and endurance: enthralling music, also (particularly) from its percussion part, leaving the listener almost breathless. The performance by the Orchestre de Paris was masterful, far more than just flawless. This was even exceeded in the final movement (Presto)—a galloping, virtuosic orchestral showpiece, and an extreme challenge in terms of coordination and agility of the entire ensemble. Paavo Järvi and his musicians offered a performance that was both compelling and enthralling—the enthusiastic applause was more than justified.

The musicians offered a final encore, “Tahiti Trot”, op.16, again by Dmitri Shostakovitch: an orchestra transcription of the popular song “Tea for Two” (from the 1925 musical “No, No, Nanette” with music by Vincent Youmans and lyrics by Irving Caesar), which Shostakovich created in 1927, within 45 minutes—in (successful) response to a bet. It’s a 4-minute, ironic fun piece, making everybody in the audience smile—an excellent way to close the evening!

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