Not Quite Smiles All Round: Beethoven, Barber and Haydn in Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Beethoven, Barber, Haydn: Tonhalle OrchestraDavid Zinman( conductor), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Zurich Tonhalle, 6.10.2011 (JR)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 8
Barber: Violin Concerto
Haydn: Symphony No. 99, “The Cat”

Lisa Batiashvili. Photo Anja Frers/Deutsche Grammophon

This concert felt the wrong way round, starting with Beethoven’s 8th symphony. Zinman recorded some of the Beethoven symphonies, including the 8th, in Zurich with the Tonhalle in the mid-90s and again in the last few years recorded a complete cycle, which has received critical acclaim. This performance did not disappoint, and there was a joyful buoyant swing to the opening allegro vivace e con brio. The allegro scherzando brought a smile to the lips (some believe this is a parody of Haydn’s “Clock” symphony) and the final string helter-skelter spirited allegro vivace was dispatched with suitable gleeful abandon.

Without doubt the highlight of the concert was Lisa Batiashvili’s performance of the Barber Violin Concerto. The concerto represents the culmination of Barber’s early, lyrical style with gorgeous melodies in the first and second movements; it was actually written mainly in the Swiss mountains. Zinman, an American citizen, clearly relished the chance to play some of his native music to the Swiss audience, many of whom will not have known the work well; Zinman was however too restrained, this is his style, one wanted a little more Bernstein intensity at times. Batiashvili did bring out the more modern striking and dissonant elements of this piece, otherwise so intensely lush and lyrical.

Martin Fuchs’ achingly beautiful opening oboe quite stole the show in the slow movement, although Batiashvili regained attention with some fine double-stopping. One or two minor lapses in intonation revealed Batiashvili, it has to be said, not quite (but almost) in the Shaham, Stern or Perlman class, although the tone of her instrument, a 1709 Stradivarius, was ravishing. Only in the last movement, presto in moto perpetuo, did Batiashvili require the score, in order to dash off the virtuosic fireworks. This movement had defeated the adopted son of the soap magnate, Fels, who commissioned Barber to write the piece for his protégé; the magnate asked for his money back, claiming the concerto was unplayable, until Barber found a violin student who managed to prove the movement was playable. (The story goes that Barber had already spent the money from the commission).

In order to attempt to attract a younger audience to the Tonhalle, the orchestra played the concerto again the following night, in an innovative and successful series entitled “Tonhalle Late”, followed by a disco.

The concert concluded with Haydn’s 99th symphony (“The Cat”), one of the “London” Symphonies

symphonies, first played only six days after Haydn’s arrival in London in February 1794. There was not quite enough energy and élan for my taste, Zinman choosing not to over-exaggerate the discords. We should have been smiling, but the performance was just a mite too straight-laced. Memories of a zippier performance of the same work in the same hall a year ago under Muhai Tang and the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO) sprang to mind, and I yearned for a Norrington (who has recently replaced Tang as Principal Conductor of the ZKO). The opening allegro was crisp enough, but whilst the slow movement was spacious and elegant, with polished playing throughout, it felt rather lacklustre. The same lack of joie de vivre was evident in the staccato third movement; perhaps the orchestra was disturbed by a significant delay in the start of the concert due to the late arrival of the principal trumpet (a rare Swiss train collision and derailment). And finally, the scampering strings brought the symphony to a close, but where – even if the Swiss are not exactly renowned for their humour – were the musical gags, which should have brought some smiles to the faces of the audience?

John Rhodes