Start of a Golden Age for Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

12/10/2018

Liszt, Mahler: Zee Zee (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 11.10.2018. (JR)

Paavo Järvi ©Kaupo Kikkas

Paavo Järvi © Kaupo Kikkas

LisztPiano Concerto No.1 in E♭ major S.124
Mahler – Symphony No.5

Paavo Järvi does not – strictly speaking – become Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra until next season, but it is already evident that the orchestra’s management has chosen Lionel Bringuier’s successor wisely. This was the first of Järvi’s concerts before his official start; however, it virtually felt like the start of his tenure. (He will also take the orchestra on a tour of Asia later this month). If this was the first day of his honeymoon with the orchestra, then married life will look rosy, if the cheering after the Mahler symphony was anything to go by.

First, I must tell you about the Liszt and Zhang Zuo, also known as Zee Zee. Zee was a BBC Young Generation Artist a few years ago and for a couple of seasons and now, aged 30, plays with many a prestigious orchestra; she is something of a Paavo Järvi favourite at the moment. Zee started her piano lessons in Germany but then returned to China. At this moment, her teacher is none other than Alfred Brendel.

It cannot be easy deciding what to programme before a monster of a Mahler symphony, what with Mahler’s extraordinary palate of layered sounds, but Liszt seems like an especially tricky composer to pull off in that connection. Between the two, Liszt’s eruptions sound more hilly than mountainous, and the thematic material is stated almost matter-of-factly if you hear it next to Mahler’s combination of weight and mysticism.

Zee approached Liszt’s First Piano Concerto with an unhurried intimacy in the in-between passages, and with full virtuoso flight in the showier parts. Her sound was not delicate, which works for this composition, though I wonder what colours she evokes when her commanding iciness is not called for. There is a high-octave fit of extensive tickling trills in the second movement, which Zee played excellently: heavily enough to rattle, lightly enough that it flew. Her encore (‘Tarantella’), also by Liszt, had similar right-handed ice, too much perhaps.

That intimacy of play – subtler dynamics, a hint of languor in the tempi – showed Zee as a sensitive and intelligent interpreter but came at the price of the whole work’s thrust. Järvi kept his ensemble on a tight leash for the Liszt opener, and their cumulative sound in the third movement was oddly bland, even in tutti climaxes. It was not necessarily more volume I was hoping for, but more arch in the arguments along the way. That said, Järvi and his instrument groups found a fresh sound each and every time the well-known theme arrived, and showed it shifting from grand to sly to fateful with aplomb.

When, from 2006 until 2014, Järvi was in charge of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (now called the hr-Sinfonieorchester – ‘hr’ standing for Hessischer Rundfunk), that orchestra, so I am told by musical locals, went through something of a Golden Age. Most orchestras, like civilisations, have their peaks and troughs; it looks to me as though the Tonhalle Orchestra is about to embark on an upward curve, bringing not only higher (and hopefully younger) audience numbers (especially when they return in 2020 to their newly renovated home, the Tonhalle) but also a renewed vigour and, above all, a sense of enjoyment. This was already palpable in this concert. The performance – and the orchestra’s playing – was, in a word, sensational.

Järvi is, of course, an experienced and charismatic conductor, especially in Mahler, Bruckner, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Nielsen (I believe he bravely started his tenure in Frankfurt with a Nielsen Sixth Symphony, a largely unknown and unfathomable work, hardly likely to please the masses).

Järvi’s conducting of the Mahler was vigorous, one could even say virile, but without show; he picked up on many nuances to highlight the pathos and anxieties in the work, from anguished shrieks in the woodwind to the blare of the brass. He positioned the sections of the orchestra carefully, harp not too far back for the Adagietto, and solo horn (Ivo Gass) standing alone, far from the rest of his section, for his outstanding contribution in the Scherzo. Gass was simply splendid; no wonder he makes the ranks of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

In the opening movement, Philippe Litzler was the faultless trumpeter, whilst the entire horn section covered themselves with glory. Järvi’s treatment of the stormy second movement was vehement, coaxing every ounce of emotion from the strings. The Adagietto was not too saccharine, and not too slow as some conductors are prone to do for added effect; the audience at one point seemed to have stopped breathing – even the autumnal coughers were silenced. The final movement led us swiftly to the final climax, which, with Christian Hartmann’s skills on the timps, brought the house down.

At the end of the symphony, large sections of the audience (a full house) erupted; the orchestra seemed stunned. Järvi beamed. He could sense he too had made a wise choice. He picked out some of the players who had helped to make this performance memorable but he also knew he was going to be in charge of a fine orchestra, which will follow his instructions to the letter. As I say, a Golden Age beckons.

John Rhodes

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