Jukka-Pekka Saraste Saves Tonhalle’s Bacon With Impressive Mahler Ninth

16/09/2018

Berg, Mahler: Janine Jansen (violin), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Jukka-Pekka Saraste  (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 14.9.2018. (JR)

Tonhalle Maag

Berg – Violin Concerto

Mahler – Symphony No.9

The opening of the concert season is always an important and hopefully prestigious event for any orchestra, so one can only imagine the Intendantin’s dismay and anguish when she learned, just a few days before rehearsals were about to begin, that Semyon Bychkov had been taken ill and could not conduct. After a no doubt agonising wait of a mere 24 hours, a replacement was found, and not just any replacement, but a seasoned Mahlerian: Jukka-Pekka Saraste. He happened to have a week free before his schedule was completely filled right up to Christmas, and was comfortable with both works on the programme, neither easy pieces. Artist-in-residence for this coming season, Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, approved the match and all were mightily relieved.

Jansen also suffered ill health during the entire summer (a hand injury is rumoured) and had to cancel engagements with the Vienna Symphony (where the Concertmaster took over performances of the Brahms concerto) and Berlin Philharmonic. Thankfully she appears fully recovered.

There is a link between the two works performed: both the Berg concerto and Mahler’s Ninth were first performed posthumously: and Berg thought the first movement of the symphony not only a masterpiece of composition, but possibly also the best of all pieces.

The Berg concerto is not easy to digest. It was dedicated ‘To the memory of an angel’, written in the memory of Walter Gropius’ and Alma Mahler’s 18-year old daughter Manon, who had just died after having contracted polio. The work is divided into two parts, both parts ending with more than a nod to Mahler. Before that, there are some atonal passages employing the twelve-tone technique (learned from his teacher Arnold Schoenberg) that can test the attention of many a listener, even though there is a tonal undercurrent. Jansen played with absolute authority, but was rather straight-laced. I last saw the work performed by Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who was much more flamboyant and brought the piece to life. Saraste, I felt, did not really enter into the spirit of the work. Sadly there were, yet again, too many empty seats – perhaps the mere mention of the name Berg?

The Mahler, however, was quite another matter. Saraste’s Mahler is widely admired; he is much more than a safe pair of hands. He clearly relished having an orchestra of the calibre of the Tonhalle at his command and there was clear chemistry between him and his players.

Saraste’s first movement was given an emphatic, exhilarating reading. His placement of instruments was unusual – antiphonal violins, celli behind the first violins, double basses behind them; horns on the far right. Clearly some considerable thinking had been going on but I was unsure what sonic benefit had been gained.

Saraste was graceful and elegant in the Ländler, properly savage in the Rondo-Burleske. Philip Litzler, principal trumpet, was outstanding, as were the entire horn section led by Ivo Gass.

The final ‘dying’ movement was a glory, with enchanting solos from both concertmaster Andreas Janke and principal viola Gilad Karni. After almost inaudible closing bars, Saraste held the audience in the palm of his hand before allowing them to start the generous applause.

Having had the good fortune to hear recently the likes of the Concertgebouw, Lucerne Festival Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony in the space of just a few weeks, I have to say the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich can stand comparison, given a fine conductor and acoustics which, for a temporary hall, are well-nigh ideal. Hopefully Saraste can be coaxed back to Zurich soon again, and this time he can conduct music of his choice – Nielsen, perhaps?

John Rhodes

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