Edinburgh Festival (16): Zimmermann Shows Aggression in Brahms’ Violin Concerto

25/08/2013

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 Edinburgh International Festival 2013 (16) – Brahms, Bruckner: Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin),Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / David Zinman (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 19.8.2013 (SRT)

David Zinman, credit Priska Ketterer

David Zinman, credit Priska Ketterer

Brahms: Violin Concerto
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3

The orchestra of the Tonhalle Zurich had a special relationship with Brahms when he was alive (he was the only living composer to feature in their new ceiling mural) and I really enjoyed their 2010 set of Brahms Symphonies. I also thought that their account of the Haydn Variations was very special when they brought it to the Edinburgh Festival in 2009. I’m not sure what went wrong with tonight’s performance of the Violin Concerto, though, because right from the opening the orchestra lacked the sense of cohesion that made their previous Brahms so impressively architectural. True, they put in a performance that was never less than assertive but their playing didn’t gel as it does in their most impressive moments.

It would be unfair to attribute this solely to the presence of an almost aggressive soloist in Frank Peter Zimmermann (I lost count of the number of times he stamped his feet), because even at the start of the great Adagio, and despite a beautifully long-breathed oboe solo, the rest of the winds felt too assertive, as if they were trying to talk up their own part to the detriment of the whole. Zimmermann’s performance was also too individualistic, and perhaps the orchestra felt the need to match him at his own game. He seemed to elbow his way through the first movement and there was too little poetry until the coda. Even more damagingly, he kept trying to push the tempo ahead in the Adagio, and Zinman’s attempts to hold him back didn’t seem to be working. Foot-stomping and jumping aside, the finale suited Zimmermann’s exuberance the most, but on the whole this was a reading that never hung together as it should.

As if having cast off a distraction, the orchestra sounded much more fully inside Bruckner’s Third Symphony. Zinman’s direction also sounded more secure, building his sound from the bottom up with rock-solid basses which led up through the ranks to gleaming top brass, sounding fantastic in the climaxes. The string sound was extraordinary, too, rich, velvety and fat, particularly impressive at the start of the slow movement. Zinman controlled the arc of each movement as it unfolded impressively, keeping a touch of mania for the energy of the scherzo or the circling string figures that opened the finale. They return on Monday evening for the German Requiem: let’s hope Monday’s Brahms sounds more like tonight’s Bruckner.

The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 1st September at a range of venues across the city. A selection of performances will be reviewed in these pages. For full details go to www.eif.co.uk

Simon Thompson

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