Prom 57 – Compelling performances from Pires, Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 57 – Anders Hillborg, Mozart, Beethoven:  Maria João Pires (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman (conductor) Royal Albert Hall, London, 27.8.2011 (GD)

Anders Hillborg Cold Heat. UK Premiere
Piano Concerto No 27 in B flat major, K 595
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Opus 55, ‘Eroica’

I can’t remember hearing much contemporary, or non contemporary , Swedish music being played at the Proms. Composers like Peterson Berger, Lars-Erik Larsson, Hilding Rosenberg and Pettersson (to name some of the most famous Swedish composers) are very rarely played, not only at the Proms, but anywhere on the London classical concert scene. So a UK premiere of an orchestral score by a leading Swedish composer like Anders Hillborg (who attended the Prom and received audience applause at the end of the performance) was most welcome.

Cold Heat , composed in 2010, was a joint comission from the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation, the Tonhalle Society Zurich, and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. It received its first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by tonight’s conductor, David Zinman, to whom the score is dedicated. In an e-mail from the conductor to the composer Zinman suggested ‘a rock ‘n’ roll-ish, toe tapping, rhythmic sort of piece, with NO slow music whatsoever’. Well, there was certainly very little slow music in the piece, and plenty of ‘toe-tapping rhythms’, especially from an array of percussion, but I couldn’t hear a great deal of rock ‘n’ roll, although the percussive rhythmic clusters provided material for the development of it! When the percussion rhythms were overlaid by impressive brass chorales I was reminded more of one of Allan Petterrson’s ostinato figurations with similar brass chorales, even a touch of Bach! But Hillborg’s work had none of the ominous gloom of a Pettersson. In fact it deployed predominantly major key tonal registers conjuring up a feeling of dance and optimism. Overall ‘Cold Heat’ is a superbly crafted work both in its composition and economy of form lasting just 13 minutes. Needless to say it received tonight a most idiomatic and sympathetic rendition from David Zinman and the superb Tonhalle Zurich orchestra.

Up until quite recently Mozart’s last piano concerto was associated with what Mozart scholar Wolfgang Hildesheimer termed ‘Mozart’s transfigured farewell’, the concerto cast in a kind of aura of valediction. In reality we now know that Mozart never intended any kind of valedictory quality, having earlier shelved the incomplete work when the prospect of performance was cancelled. He duly completed K 595 in 1791 when a performance was imminent. Mozart was an eminently practical composer with little time for sentimental overlay.

Tonight both conductor and soloist Maria João Pires played in total accord. From the opening fluid theme in B flat on strings Zinman set just the right tone of apparent gentle, mellifluous ease subtended by a more introspective mood. João Pires was fully in tune with this gracefully elegant but more complex tone especially in the wonderfully lucid development section with its myriad turn of modulations in the interwoven tapestry between soloist and orchestra. No less than twelve keys are traversed in rapid succession in this miraculous development. The E flat Larghetto was similarly idiomatic. The tones of Die Zauberflöte seeming never to be far away. The mid-section, where half a dozen bars of marvellously distinctive dialogue between soloist and oboes, bassoons and lower strings develop, was compellingly beautiful, with Pires as the consumate chamber ensemble pianist. The rondo finale in 6/8 time with it’s haunting allusions to the song ‘Komm, lieber Mai, K596, was a joy from beginning to end. Both soloist and conductor revelled in the springing broken arpeggio figurations ((from the song), and the elegant rippling passage-work which develops up towards the concerto’s coda. This is virtuoso piano writing but Joao Pires never allowed this virtuosity to dominate as an end in its self. It always registered as a servant to Mozart’s supreme musical invention and poetry. I look forward to hearing more Mozart from João Pires and Zinman – preferably in a venue with a less cavernous, more piano/ensemble friendly acoustic than than that offered by the vast Albert Hall.

The Prom ended with a performance of the Eroica Symphony which was as lucid and compelling as any performance I have heard of this ‘classic’ in recent years. So what did Zinman do to make this Eroica so fresh and compelling? Well, to start with he demonstrated an absolute sense of the symphony’s overall structure; how each movement is thematically inter-linked; how, for instance, descending phrases in the violins and violas in the exposition, development and recapitulation of the first movement are thematically linked to parallel phrases in the second movement ‘Marcia funebre’, and how the same themes make their voice heard in a brief interval in the finale. Of course these thematic references/links are there in almost any performance of the symphony but not every performance reveals them so eloquently. And this has nothing to do with Zinman underlining or accentuating a particular passage. It has more to do with Zinman securing an integral structure and balance from which such details emerge naturally, as it were, as part of Beethoven’s overall design. This is rather similar to how Toscanini used to allow similar details to cohere with the whole. Balance of a different kind was also part of Zinman’s approach; I mean orchestral balance. We had a superb example of this in the first movement’s extended development section, especially in what Tovey termed ‘the famous collision of shadowy harmonies’. Here we heard details, especially in the woodwind and horns, we seldom hear. But it wasn’t just a case of orchestral clarity for its own sake. This kind of intense detail was integral to the unfolding (of its time and still…) of a unique statement of symphonic drama. Also, in this respect, Zinman uses a modern symphony orchestra texture but has them play with a ‘period’ sounding tone; an absolute minimum of vibrato, natural sounding horns and the use of hard sticks to ensure the important timpani parts, especially in the ‘Marcia funebre’ ‘sound’, are audible. Zinman’s tempi throughout were on the swift side in line with Beethoven’s metronome markings. But I never had the feeling of anything being rushed, Zinman providing a natural, dramatic overall symphonic pulse.

The second movement ‘Marcia funèbre’ was taken at a steady tempo which Zinman more or less maintained throughout the movement. He emphasised the ‘march’ aspect here while never neglecting the ‘funèbre’ tone of the music. As implied above, the use of hard timpani sticks added great clarity and atmosphere to the ‘cortege’ tone. Those clear drum taps producing the haunting tone of death. The great C minor double fugue, culminating in the movements climax, what Weingartner called ‘Aeschylean’, was sustained at a rock steady tempo, Zinman producing again a wonderful clarity of orchestral texture,while at the same time deploying the full tutti weight of the orchestra. Like with Toscanini, Zinman balanced the triplet timpani figures, just before the movements brief coda, to perfection. Aided, of course, by excellent timpani playing.

Both the third movement ‘Scherzo’ and the Promethean finale were delivered with great energy, precision and conviction, the horns in the scherzo’s trio section sounding wonderfully bucolic.The initial statement of the Prometheus theme in the finale was played as a quartet by lead section players. I don’t think I have heard this before and there is no such indication in the score. But it sounded in line with the various innovative orchestral practices known to have been deployed in the Viennese ‘Classical’ period. The triumphant coda itself was superbly anticipated and timed. I could have done with a bit more ‘brio’ here, especially from the horns. Buit it still lost none of its dramatic impact. Also I was not entirely convinced by the various ornamentations, embellishments and twiddles in the woodwind throughout the work. And I was surprised that Zinman didn’t deploy antiphonal violins adding such overall orchestral clarity. But these are no more than quibbles and really did little to detract from the overall excellence of both playing and conducting.

I don’t always appreciate the insertion of an encore, especially in a Prom as satisfying and complete as this one. But, typically, Zinman gave us a glimpse into the genealogy of the ‘Eroica’ symphony by playing the final Allegretto – Allegro molto, from the earlier Creatures of Prometheus‘ ballet music, Op 43, which, of course includes the main Prometheus theme Beethoven uses in the finale of the ‘Eroica’. symphony. This was an excellent choice of encore to fully round off and complete this memorable Prom.

Geoff Diggines

This programme was also given at the Edinburgh International Festival. Simon Thompson’s review of the concert is here.