Dohnanyi conducts the Zurich Tonhalle with Fine Bartok and Mahler

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bartok, Mahler: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Christoph von Dohnanyi, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 11.10.2011 (JR)

Bartok:  Music for strings, percussion and celesta
:  Symphony No. 1

In my last review of a concert conducted by Kurt Masur, I mused as to whether there ought to be a compulsory retirement age for conductors, as I felt that some were past their “sell-by” date.  On seeing and hearing Dohnanyi at 82, I take it all back. There should be no such retirement age: Dohnanyi is a wonder. He stood tall, needed no assistance onto stage or podium, and conducted both works without the need of scores. The lady at the Box Office had already told me that the concert was splendid – and she was right.

Christoph von Dohnanyi Photo (c) Fotostudio Heinrich

The Dohnanyi family has Hungarian roots, Dohnanyi himself is the holder of a prize from the Bartok Society, and he was an assistant to Georg Solti at Frankfurt Opera back in the 1950s. His Bartok was – as was to be expected therefore – quite masterful: he has an ability to make modern music approachable (although I accept, of course, Bartok is no longer modern music), to dissect its parts and portray a cohesive whole. This was the finest Music for strings, percussion and celesta I have heard. After its doleful eerie opening, he brought the first movement inexorably to its great climax before its descent back into the gloom. By contrast, in the second movement it was all jaunty and witty bounce, the strings giving their all. Back – in the third movement – to wonderfully transparent textures of the Night Music, with its harp and celesta glissandi and finally into the Magyar dance, bringing the work to its joyful conclusion. It was quite a romp, and Dohnanyi kept up the pace throughout.

The Mahler was equally impressive, even if not technically faultless. Dohnanyi’s analytical style may not serve the later more Romantic symphonies, but for Symphony No. 1 it served well. All the opening forest murmurs were clearly enunciated, there was plenty of charm and lilt to follow. Climaxes were not anticipated so that when they came, they overwhelmed. Dohnanyi brought out the modern aspects of the work whenever he could, such as the almost Bartokian strings in the Scherzo, and conducted with rhythmic vigour. There was always great attention to detail and constant contrasting between the different dynamic sections. The ‘Frère Jacques’ motif opening the third movement was splendidly and evocatively played by double bass principal Ronald Dangel, and both Dohnanyi and the woodwind section relished the mixture of Yiddish and Hungarian themes of the middle Trio section. Hardly a pause for breath before the final movement and then in with a crash came the vision of hell, before finding the ultimate paradise in the final bars, standing whooping horns bringing the work to an exuberant close. The audience simply yelped with joy: it had been a magnificent team effort. The orchestra’s principal conductor and expert Mahlerian, David Zinman, watching from the stalls, was clearly impressed.


John Rhodes