Zinman Not a Natural Brucknerian

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Mozart, Bruckner: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman (conductor), Stephen Kovacevich (piano), Tonhalle, Zurich, 29.3.2012 (JR)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 18
:  Symphony No. 7

Orchestras are still curiously nervous about filling a hall with “just” a Bruckner symphony. The public, it seems, has to be lured by a Mozart piano concert, preferably with a Big Name. In these days of fiscal austerity and severe cuts to culture funds (yes, even in Switzerland) no-one is taking chances with too many empty seats. And so it was at this virtually full-house concert given by the Tonhalle Orchestra under their Principal Conductor David Zinman.

The concert was held in memory of Volkmar Andreae to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Andreae led the Tonhalle for 43 years, from 1906 to 1949, quite a feat for any conductor. He stepped in (in 1903) for an indisposed conductor to perform a St. Matthew Passion and then a year later stepped in again for Mahler’s Third. However, Zurichers had to wait 40 years after the first performance of Bruckner’s Seventh (in Leipzig in 1884) before hearing it at the Tonhalle under Andreae in 1924. Andreae went on to become a Bruckner specialist and performed the first complete Bruckner cycle (albeit with the Vienna Symphony).

Andreae was also an accomplished composer. Richard Morrison recently reviewed a new disc of his music performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and wrote: “It’s typically Swiss, perhaps, to overlook one of your country’s major composers to such an extent that the first commercial recording of his finest works has been made by a British orchestra (albeit with Swiss money). Volkmar Andreae not only conducted the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra for 40 years but also wrote luscious music reminiscent of Franck, Stravinsky and Strauss, yet with a zest all its own. Conducted by Marc, his grandson, this selection includes his remarkable First Symphony and the dramatic Music for Orchestra, which seems like the soundtrack for some undisclosed melodrama. A delightful rediscovery.”

Stephen Kovacevich; photo credit: David Thompson

But back to the Mozart. The opening Allegro Vivace was rather lacklustre and the Andante positively soporific – Mozart’s fault in my view, neither really Zinman’s nor certainly Kovacevich’s whose musicianship shone through. The work finally fell into place in the Allegro vivace which was skittish and playful. The appreciative audience were rewarded by a Bach Sarabande No. 4 which quite stole the show of the first half of the concert – the audience was spellbound.

Bruckner’s Seventh is a confident, logical and perfectly constructed work (following on from the somewhat muddled Sixth); it is probably his most-played symphony.  Zinman gave us a thoughtful but very slow performance, with a tendency to wallow. After a sublime cello opening, all seemed to augur well. Zinman’s tempi were on the slow side, and he pulled the tempi about particularly in the first movement; I felt Zinman’s phrasing neither particularly insightful nor was there sufficient dynamic shading. Whilst the opening and closing parts of the opening movement had clearly been well rehearsed, the central section was all rather woolly. There were never qualms on the acoustics front, the shoe-box Tonhalle served the Bruckner well. It was loud but never deafening, even at the back of the hall. The Adagio reminded me of a critic’s view of the late Reginald Goodall’s Wagner, like listening to a radio with the batteries running out. The Scherzo, marked “sehr schnell” was not fast enough to engender much excitement, and the central slower section dragged. There was never a spring in Zinman’s step, no bounce (memories of performances under Günther Wand spring to mind). Only in the final movement,” Bewegt”, did Zinman up the tempi a notch; the brass chorales were properly awesome and there was a fleeting glimpse of the essence of the work, but it was, sadly, too late to save the day.

John Rhodes