Philharmonia On Tour In Switzerland

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Brahms, Weber, Beethoven: Philharmonia Orchestra, Philippe Jordan (conductor), Oliver Schnyder (piano), Tonhalle Zürich, 7.5.2012 (JR)

Brahms: Symphony No. 1
: Concertino for piano and orchestra
: Symphony No. 5

Philippe Jordan Photo copyright: Johannes Ifkovits

This was a rare and very welcome visit to Switzerland (four concerts given in Zurich, Berne, St. Gallen and Geneva) from one of London’s premier orchestras with a relatively young Swiss conductor and a young Swiss soloist. On the rather conservative programme: two major German symphonies plus a piano “Konzertstück”. The conductor Philippe Jordan, son of Armin, is one of Switzerland’s best known conductors and has been director of the Paris Opera since 2009. He is also Principal Guest Conductor at the Staatsoper Berlin, having been Barenboim’s assistant there; a possible successor, one day, for Zinman?

Incidentally, the Zurich Opera orchestra has recently re-named itself the Philharmonia Zurich, presumably in deference to their more renowned London colleagues. The British orchestra is in quite another league, however, as they amply demonstrated at this concert.

There was a programme quandary to get out of the way first: the printed programme said we would have Brahms first, then the Weber, then Beethoven. An announcer, the director of sponsor Migros-Kulturprozent-Classics, told us, as most of the audience would have realised after the first four notes, that the Beethoven would be played first, the Brahms last.

Neither the Beethoven nor the Brahms received any particularly radical or thought-provoking interpretation from Jordan: this was simply music-making at a very high level with the sound and skills of a world-class orchestra. Zurich makes do very nicely most of the time with the refined Tonhalle Orchestra, who play 90% of all orchestral concerts in the city – but any change is welcome. Migros strives to bring foreign orchestras into Switzerland, whilst showcasing young Swiss talent.

The orchestra was large for the Beethoven and the sound filled the relatively small hall – but of course the musicians are used to the Festival Hall, a considerably larger space. Jordan made an immediate impression, jabbing his baton from the outset, vigorous at all times. The first movement simply thrilled; all eyes were on the bouncy timpanist and athletic conductor. In the Andante, the mellifluous celli were most impressive. In the Allegretto e grazioso, Jordan reminded one of Fred Astaire, long-limbed and almost dancing on the podium. The Finale was truly majestic; there was a race to the finishing post bringing gasps of delight from a whole section of the audience.

It was then the pianist’s turn to impress in the Weber. Oliver Schnyder is just starting to become a name known on the international circuit and this series of concerts should help his credentials. The Beethoven was a hard act to follow without an interval to clear the palate: after a dirge-like beginning, the piece gradually came to life and Schnyder showed off his deft finger-work in the long trills. The work is not particularly tuneful, but light and joyous throughout, and Schnyder raced through it with patent enjoyment and consummate skill.

On to the Brahms, who also found Beethoven’s entire oeuvre a very hard act to follow. This symphony fared less well than the program opener, as there were some odd choices of tempo and the first movement was too manic. Both central movements were much more relaxed and one could focus on the skills of the various principals. After the final movement’s mysterious pizzicato opening, the central section was regally delivered before unleashing the full-blooded Finale. It brought roars rarely heard in the Tonhalle, wholly justified.

John Rhodes