No Lang Lang But Oodles of Orchestral Colour from Thibaudet and Bringuier

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Ravel, Stravinsky: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 27.4.2017. (JR)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet Photo 1
Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Ravel – Piano Concerto


The season’s programme, drawn up approximately a year in advance of this concert, told us that we would be hearing Lang Lang in Rachmaninov’s rather schmaltzy Second Piano Concerto, and that is what subscription ticket-holders (who make up a large part of the audience) were expecting. At some stage the programme was changed to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.24 (yawn), presumably at Lang Lang’s request. Then on 13 April Lang Lang announced to audible gasps from the music world that he would be cancelling all concerts for the next three months or so on doctors’ orders due to an inflammation in his left arm. The announcement must have had many an orchestral management scrabbling around frantically for suitable “star” replacements. Credit therefore to the Tonhalle for booking another star of the keyboard, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, for this brace of concerts. I suspect Bringuier’s friendship with his fellow Frenchman will have helped. We were told that Thibaudet had to re-arrange rehearsals in Paris to accommodate the new schedule and everyone was duly grateful.

The concert programme still portrayed an oversize photo of Lang Lang on the cover and the details of the new pianist and programme had to be printed on a separate sheet. Ticket prices had been hiked up to a top price of 175 Swiss Francs (that’s a whopping £136 or $175 in real money); normally top prices are in the 125-150 Franc range. Zurich is not ranked one of the most expensive cities in the world for nothing. Ticket-holders were given the option of a total refund – or a partial refund if they attended the concert – the queue in the Box Office was long and extra staff had been brought in to cope. Management had apparently received many letters from ticket-holders, some complimentary but some – certainly unfairly – rudely complaining. Nevertheless the hall was virtually full and many younger faces could be spotted.

Now on to matters musical …

Probably due to an understandable shortage of rehearsal time, the orchestra got off to a very shaky start, which affected the entire first movement. Tempi were all over the place. The audience enjoyed the rollicking high jinks of the work with its syncopated rhythms and jazzy outbursts nevertheless: the concerto is audibly inspired by Ravel having met Gershwin.

Thibaudet’s incredible lightness of touch in the delightful introduction to the second movement was the subject of general wonder, as were the sublime contributions from the woodwind, particularly the cor anglais of Martin Frutiger and flute of Sabine Poyé Morel. In the final Presto it was Thibaudet’s fast finger-work which caught one’s attention and the way in which he pawed gently at the keyboard in the closing bars. Bringuier accompanied dutifully; the work is in his inner repertoire (he performed it with Hélène Grimaud a few years ago and also with Yuja Wang).

Insistent applause for Thibaudet was rewarded with some delightfully delicate Chopin. The audience would gladly have stayed for more. Lang Lang was not missed; my sharpened pencil was not required.

The second part of the concert belonged to Stravinsky, the Ballet Russe and the Firebird. We were served the entire ballet score, which at 44 minutes is a long haul until the music ramps up for the Infernal Dance and why often the Suite is performed to shorten the wait. One really needs the ballet or other visual images to guide us through the story as, although the programme listed all the 23 “scenes”, because one segues uninterruptedly into the next, you really do not know where you are in the story most of the time. Luckily, one can just sit back and enjoy the orchestral colours and melodies, which make this such a popular piece. Bringuier was in his element and the orchestra responded with style and energy (they had clearly had benefited from sufficient rehearsal). The brass growled, the three(!) harps shimmered, the percussion thumped and tinkled; principal oboe and horn stood out. Is there a piece with a more exciting ending?

It did occur to me as I watched and listened that the orchestra will miss Bringuier’s flair and dynamism when he leaves at the end of next season – it is going to be a leap in the dark at the moment as his successor has not been chosen.

 John Rhodes

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