Bringuier Bows Out Gracefully With His Trademark Ravel

10/06/2018

R. Strauss, Prokofiev, Ravel: Thomas Grossenbacher (cello), Michel Rouilly (viola), Yuja Wang (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich. 7.6.2018. (JR)

Lionel Bringuier (c) Jonathan Grimbert-Barre

R. Strauss – Don Quixote op.35

Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No.3 op.26

RavelLa Valse

This was more of an occasion than a concert in the true sense. The Bringuier ‘era’ (more of an episode really) as Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, for a rather truncated four seasons, came to an end with this sell-out concert (ignoring an outdoor repeat performance the next evening on the square in front of the Fraumünster). From my seat in the balcony, I could not really detect many sad faces amongst orchestra members but the audience had over the last few years taken a shine to this amiable young man; and musically speaking, in French music, he was considered first-rate. It was typical of humble, smiling, self-effacing Bringuier not to want to steal any limelight in this farewell concert, instead giving the stage in the first half to two of the leading principals of the orchestra, Thomas Grossenbacher (cello) and Michael Rouilly (viola) for Richard Strauss’s quirky tone poem Don Quixote.

Grossenbacher and Rouilly recorded this work with the Tonhalle and David Zinman back in 2000 and the recording was well received, though the orchestra cannot stand comparison with their lusher counterparts in Vienna, Berlin and Dresden. Grossenbacher was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra; I could not work out whether his volume was inadequate or the acoustics of the provisional concert hall had conspired to defeat him. Bringuier made no attempt to quieten his orchestra. Technically Grossenbacher was on top of the work, and played with warmth, sweet tone and audible affection for the piece. Rouilly was also truly splendid and even came across visually as a credible Sancho Panza.

Sadly, my concentration was removed by the sight of someone collapsing in a seat right above the orchestra, then requiring immediate first aid, and subsequently rushing off on a stretcher. I also kept wondering whether I would be enjoying this glorious piece – possibly Strauss’s finest tone poem – even more on Sunday, when Renaud Capuçon plays it here with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Philippe Jordan.

It was fitting that Yuja Wang be the soloist in Bringuier’s final concert, as she had been the first soloist during his tenure as Chief Conductor and there is clearly warmth and chemistry between the two. Originally, she was scheduled to perform Rachmaninov’s Fourth Concerto, but at some stage this was changed to Prokofiev’s fiendishly tricky Third. Wang played a lengthy programme at the Barbican only a few days ago (review click here) and has a demanding schedule; apparently her doctors have recently told her she must perform less to maintain her health. Thankfully, she did not cancel for her friend’s farewell bash.

Wang’s technique is undeniable; warmth is hardly required in this concerto, even not in the slow movement. The audience was wowed by her long glittering dress as much as by her lightning-quick finger-work and panache. This is easy-listening Prokofiev, which never fails to thrill – and so it did.

So, having said ‘goodbye’ to his orchestra through the principal cellist and viola player in the first half, ‘goodbye’ to his favourite soloist after the interval, it was time to take his leave with his favourite composer, Ravel. Tears and joy, aptly for this concert, were evident in Ravel’s bitter-sweet La Valse. My musical neighbour found the reading too fast, but I had no such quibbles. Bringuier chose neither to linger nor wallow – thus confirming his credentials in this Gallic fare.

The audience had been told to stay behind after the final work for a ‘surprise’. That turned out to be the handing over of a huge cowbell, engraved on behalf of the orchestra, which Bringuier – to his visible surprise – was then told he would playing as a member of the percussion section. Out stepped clarinetist Florian Walser to conduct a piece, which he had composed to include the frequent use of cowbell. Mahler was quoted, but Walser’s predilection with folk music was also evident. Percussionist Andreas Berger played the spoons, first on a block, then on Bringuier’s arm, then on Bringuier’s head. Bringuier took it all in good spirits. I had to think that Zinman would have been less amused by such jinks at his much more formal farewell concert, not so very long ago.

Bringuier received a standing ovation following a short ‘thanks for everything’ speech by Ilona Schmiel, Intendantin of the orchestra, and after a longer affectionate speech, in French, by Bringuier.  All hope it will be not be ‘goodbye’ but ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ or, using Bringuier’s native tongue ‘au revoir’. He will, I feel sure, always be welcomed back to conduct the Tonhalle Orchestra and his excellent performances and interpretations, particularly of French repertoire, will be fondly remembered.

John Rhodes

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