Refined Schubert and Mahler from the Tonhalle and David Zinman

SwitzerlandSwitzerland   Schubert, Mahler: Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman (conductor) – Tonhalle, Zurich  27.9.2011 (JR)

The original first-half of this concert, sponsored by Migros (one of Switzerland’s major grocery chains) was to have been Heinz Holliger playing Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto but that was changed due to the indisposition of Heinz Holliger. Instead we were treated to Schubert’s Symphony No. 7, described as “The Unfinished”. That had me puzzled. Surely the ”Unfinished” is No. 8?

It seems that there is continuing controversy amongst musicologists over the numbering of the “Unfinished” Symphony, with German-speaking scholars sometimes numbering it as Symphony No. 7, whilst the most recent version of the Deutsch catalogue (the standard catalogue of Schubert’s works, compiled by Otto Deutsch) lists it as No. 8. Many American orchestras have therefore dropped the numbering altogether since the mid-1980s and in printed programmes title No. 9, for example, as the “Great” C-major Symphony – anyhow, the Tonhalle referred to the “Unfinished” as No. 7.

More research into the numbering of Schubert symphonies revealed that Schubert failed to complete not only what most know as Symphony No. 8, but also No. 7 where only fragments were left. Readers may also be interested to know that there is a long and intriguing list of unfinished symphonies, including Beethoven 10, Bizet’s Roma Symphony, Borodin 3, Bruckner 9, Mahler 10, Elgar 3, Nielsen’s Symphonic Rhapsody, Schubert 10, Sibelius 8, Stenhammar 3, Tchaikovsky 7 and Tubin 11.

Luckily it was the music we all know and cherish and Zinman gave us an enchanting performance of the Schubert. The first movement was fleet-footed and graceful, Zinman building up the tension to almost Mahlerian shrieks. The movement’s captivating theme cannot but please. The lightness of touch continued over into the second more contemplative movement, where Martin Fuchs’ plangent oboe stood out.

Following on from a highly acclaimed performance of Mahler’s Sixth at the Mahler Festival in Leipzig, Zinman brought us a polished but not angst-ridden performance of the Fifth in this concert. The Tonhalle is now a recognised Mahler orchestra and the shoebox acoustics of the Tonhalle suit Mahler’s works very well (other than the Eighth, for which there is insufficient space).

Zinman employs no histrionics, no leaps into the air, no visible sweat, no genuflections, no exaggerated torment, no neurotics: simply detailed attention to every bar, and a firm conducting style. This is, however, not to everyone’s liking. He is however obviously perfectly attuned with and a devotee of Mahler’s output and the orchestra dutifully follows his every wish. Zinman has been the Tonhalle’s Principal Conductor for the last 15 years.

The symphony came over as both passionate and joyful, and therefore hugely enjoyable. Playing was of recording quality; in the opening movement, the Funeral March, the principal trumpet was impressively secure.

The textures in the second movement, marked “stormy”, were wonderfully realised, the strings refined, the brass, never raucous, precision-perfect.  The timpanist was not held back.

Then in the Scherzo Zinman had a masterstroke: he brought the principal horn to the very front of the stage so that his prominent part was afforded greater prominence, and it was played with aplomb and beauty of tone.

The tearjerker Adagietto was not too saccharine; Zinman made no attempt to wrench every drop of emotion out of each note, he just let the music flow and speak for itself.  Zinman’s influences are clearly more Haitink than Tennstedt and Bernstein.

Then the final Rondo brought us a jovial approach, a swaggering but not a white-hot Finale. The audience was however spellbound; the hall was full to bursting point, with many standing around the edges. This beautiful, controlled and excellently articulated performance put many of the more illustrious orchestras who had come to the Lucerne Festival recently into the shade.

John Rhodes