Exciting Young Principal Conductor-In-the-Waiting

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Ravel, Schumann and Bartok: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Martin Helmchen (piano), Lionel Bringuier, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich 30.9.2103 (JR)

Lionel Bringuier Copyright: Jonathan Grimbert Barre

Ravel:              Le tombeau de Couperin
Schumann:   Piano concerto
Bartok:           Concerto for Orchestra


When I told a French musical friend and music critic that the Tonhalle were going to get Lionel Bringuier as their next Chief Conductor, he exclaimed: “You are so lucky, he is a rising star in France”.  This concert, albeit repeated once, was sadly the only one he is conducting in this David Zinman’s last season as Chief Conductor and it was therefore surprising that not every seat was taken by those wanting to hear what they might expect over the coming years in Zurich. Perhaps the fact that the performance I attended was on a Sunday morning accounted for the lack of a full house.

The orchestra and this conductor have not yet started the honeymoon period but the fact that they are in love is audible. Everyone was beaming, on stage and in the hall.

Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin” (literally “Couperin’s tomb”) has little to do with Couperin himself, though the pieces (originally written for piano) are based on Baroque dances. Written during the First World War, the piece was written as a gentle and elegiac memorial for those who fell – and the fifth dance is dedicated to Jean Dreyfuss (he of the “Dreyfuss Affair”), Ravel recuperated after the War in Dreyfuss’ stepmother’s house.

The dances are a blend of melancholy, wistfulness and Gallic charm. The orchestral suite is full of colour, as one expects from a master of orchestration such as Ravel. Bringuier showed us this music is in his blood, profiling diaphanous strings at the very outset of the first dance and constantly picking out the colours of the work. With flowing gestures, Bringuier let the pieces unfold naturally, never rushing; it was all aptly very “Sunday morning music” as we glided from dance to dance. The oboe is given prominence in the Minuet and the Principal, Simon Fuchs, shone.

Martin Helmchen was the soloist for the tuneful and delightful Schumann Piano Concerto and the piece suited his temperament admirably. Helmchen was genteel and nimble, and most expressive in the cadenza of the opening Allegro. Bringuier’s accompaniment was ever sensitive; he relished the contrasts of the exuberant outbursts at which Schumann excels. The middle movement Intermezzo brought out Helmchen’s lightness of touch and beautiful phrasing – with added warmth from a splendid cello section. The final Rondo was properly joyous and Helmchen rewarded the rapturous applause with an interesting Bach encore, orchestrated by Max Reger.

Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was written during the Second World War when Bartok was exiled in the States and homesick for his native Hungary. Bringuier neither held back on volume nor discord; this was a five-star performance which augurs very well for the future collaboration between this orchestra and its new conductor. The Games of the Couples showed off the Principals’ prowess (particularly Simon Fuchs – again – on oboe who blended absolutely perfectly with his fellow oboist Kaspar Zimmermann), the whirlwind Finale set off with a flourish of horns and was exuberant and exciting.

The audience indicated their hopes for the future seasons with vociferous applause – the orchestra were visibly moved and increasingly realise they have made a brave and clever choice – it is the right one.

If you have not heard Bringuier conduct, here are some of his forthcoming engagements this season:

Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney                10, 11, 12 October

Swedish Radio Symphony, Stockholm                 21, 22, 23 November

Orchestra Phil. De Radio France, Paris                29, 30 November and 19 March

Warsaw Philharmonic, Warsaw                             10, 11 January

BBC Symphony Orchestra, London                      29 January*

San Francisco Symphony                                      5, 6, 7 February

Los Angeles Philharmonic                                     13, 15, 16 February

Vienna Symphony                                                  10, 11 May

Concertgebouw, Amsterdam                                21, 22, 23 May

Munich Philharmonic                                            14, 15, 16 June

*Bringuier’s concert at the Barbican at the end of January will feature Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony together with works by Pesson (a UK première), Dalbavie and Ravel.

Catch him if you can!

John Rhodes