The importance of being Cambreling

The devil, as Ati Metwaly discovers again, is in the details

Published on 3 June 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

“Since its establishment in 1946, the SWR Symphony Orchestra attracts internationally acclaimed conductors and soloists as well as musical ambassadors, both nationally and internationally, from Salzburg to Lucerne, from Hamburg to Madrid, from Berlin to New York.” Thus the concert programme notes. “Since 1999 Sylvian Cambreling has been at the helm of the SWR orchestra that for six decades has embraced special challenges and has won a rarely achieved degree of flexibility and mastery, both musical and conceptual.”

Programme notes should always employ superlatives. No wonder the Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra (also known as the SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra), Sylvian Cambreling, its current conductor, and Thomas Zehetman, its violinist, are all presented as such. And I would not necessarily disagree with the programme notes, in this case, if not for the fact that such language can never reflect the impressions made on the listener.

The SWR Orchestra, it should be added, does have a vast repertoire of music spanning works from the standard repertoire as well as rarely performed or almost forgotten compositions. The orchestra plays compositions from various eras in classical music (from Baroque through Classicism to Romanticism), yet it always pays special attention to 20th-century composers.

Its Cairo concert on 21 May opened with Weber’s Overture to Oberon. The horn call introduces the leitmotif and soon transports listeners to a kind of sugary intoxication. This particular Overture, if misinterpreted, can easily turn monotonous, if not dull. And the SWR displayed its technical skill in introducing dynamism and thematic colour despite Cambreling’s introverted approach; although this zone of relative safety did not diminish the Overture’s power, it tempered down many of the stronger flavours in Weber’s composition.

Next came the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 2 by Béla Bartók, which managed to release the entire spectrum of emotional capabilities on the part of the musicians. Considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, Bartók’s creativity reflects all the prevailing musical trends of the 19th and 20th centuries. His first compositions echo with neo-romanticism, his impressionism and expressionism were enriched by folkloric stylisations which, willy nilly, raised many of his compositions to higher levels of artistry.

In spite of the spread of fascism in Europe through the 1930s and Bartók’s strong anti-fascist stance, his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 2 shines with positive energy. The first movement in B minor (Allegro) in sonata form is followed by Andante Tranquillo of the second movement containing six variations in G Major on an Eastern European folk theme. The second movement was originally to serve as the only one, but Zoltàn Székely who commissioned the concerto was not satisfied with this idea and Bartók had to compose a classical three-movement piece. The second movement became the core placed within an arch between the first melodic movement and the final movement, which achieves proper closure. In spite of those rather drastic architectural changes done by Bartók, the composer still managed to present a work of a great artistic power and stylistic integrity.

The concerto’s emotional structure is intertwined with often complicated mental states. It is not a composition which can be easily understood. It simultaneously triggers different levels of perception — an original experience in which the curious listener will find a variety of intellectually stimulating elements. This experience was made possible in Cairo by Thomas Zehetmair, the internationally acclaimed violinist (also recognised as a conductor and chamber musician). Attending a concert performed by this fascinating Austrian virtuoso is truly unforgettable.

Zehetmair’s radical approach to music is shocking and captivating at the same time. Musical facility and a presence so strong it verges on the forceful arouses thirst for even the most unconventional compositions. After the opening of strings and harp in the first movement, Zehetmair’s sculpting of notes was splendid. In the second movement theme his razor-sharp signature was obvious from the first, poignant variation. Zehetmair’s deeply expressive accents lead to the startling cadence at the end of the movement. The third movement reintroduced themes from the first one, in a faster pace where Zehetmair, once again, shone with his virtuosity.

Zehetmair attacks the musical material with technical ease and strong interpretation. His seemingly eccentric approach to the concerto stresses all Bartók’s lingering details, bringing each clearly to light. The SWR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sylvian Cambreling played a big role in underlining the soloist’s work. Cambreling, given his opera conducting background, has the ability to follow the soloist. He remained supportive while setting important orchestral colourings to the whole composition. But it would have been better if Cambreling let the orchestra surface somewhat more in the tutti parts, instead of keeping it under the violin throughout the concerto.

The second half of the evening included Franz Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C Major. We consider many of the greatest composers (such as Mozart or Beethoven) to be Viennese, due to their association with the city of Vienna. Schubert was actually born in Vienna, and he composed many works in his very short life. Many are left unfinished or only roughly outlined. He left his 8th Symphony unfinished and in the summer of 1825 started structuring the 9th (the 9th is listed by German-speaking scholars as the 8th), which was not received enthusiastically by the Wiener Musikverein. Its success in 1839 in Leipzig took place after Schubert’s death.

The SWR Symphony Orchestra has the classical four- movement structure. The positioning of the orchestra, with the musicians moved further up stage (so that the apron area could be used for the audience) resulted in the woodwinds sounding as if they were too far — a pity, since the SWR has excellent woodwind musicians and Schubert’s symphony stresses them in parts.

The first movement, Andante, opens with the horn theme representing the essential nature of the symphony. Many beautiful modulations with woodwinds and horns lead to the climax followed by a contemplative climax. Playing with the utmost delicacy, the SWR walked us through many moving phrases. In Andante con moto (the 2nd movement) Schubert uses clarinets accompanied by strings to reach yet another climax. The energetic third movement introduces staccato strings to generate dynamism while the waltz theme keeps reappearing in the middle of rich harmonies. The encounter of various rhythms and attractive colouring culminates in the Allegro Vivace finale.

Sylvian Cambreling’s musical sensitivity impressed us with the quality of the pianissimo segments. Although, at times, there was room for greater grandeur, especially in the finale, the SWR achieved an appropriate balance between the emotional and intellectual elements of the symphony. Precision and perfect control over of the details is a Cambreling hallmark. Topped with the musicians’ preparation and cultural understanding of the material performed, it made for a powerful experience. And the concerted applause led to an encore, Debussy’s Epigraphe antique: Pour l’Egyptienne.

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