Two Mighty Works – Jordan at the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Brahms, Shostakovich: Arcadi Volodos (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra, Philippe Jordan (conductor), Zurich, 16.5.2012 (JR)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10

Having only very recently heard and reviewed Philippe Jordan with the Philharmonia, this concert gave Zurichers a chance to hear what the same Swiss conductor could achieve with the local orchestra, the Tonhalle. We were impressed.

First, our attention was distracted by young Russian pianist Arcadi Volodos and Brahms’ mighty Second Piano Concerto. In the opening allegro non troppo Volodos thrilled, in the Kissin mould, with tub-thumping force and vitality, although he was a mite short of warmth and expression, leaving this listener somewhat unengaged. The Allegro was however very appassionato; Volodos made light work of the difficult tumultuous passages, aided by suave accompaniment from the Tonhalle Orchestra and sensitive liaison with the conductor.

The opening of the slow movement focused on principal Anita Leuzinger’s fine cello solo, which then became almost an intimate duet with the pianist. The audience seemed to stop breathing; the final pages in particular were quite ethereal.

Volodos then launched into the final playful Allegretto, always technically flawless, to earn the roars of the audience at the end. Then as a reward, not one, not two, but three encores.

After heavy doses in recent Tonhalle seasons of Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms and most recently Schumann, it was a welcome relief indeed to hear some Shostakovich for a change. The Tenth Symphony is arguably one of his finest, the only one which Karajan thought worthy of recording.

Philippe Jordan’s father Armin was an ardent proponent of Shostakovich’s symphonies and clearly his son has acquired his father’s musical taste and skill. This was fine Shostakovich conducting, with judicious tempi throughout, although the Tonhalle Orchestra can sound too elegant and polished for this type of work, especially in the strings: some rough unpolished Russian edge and grit is sometimes what these works call for.

Jordan assiduously built up the tension in the first movement before its explosive climax. The short and savage second movement benefited from a vehement opening and then helter-skelter string playing. After an exemplary Andante, the final optimistic movement was virile, with plenty of shrill and piercing woodwind and a fearless timpanist to thump out the D-S-C-H motif to bring the work to its uplifting conclusion. The audience were enraptured: for many, I suspect, a work they did not know from a composer they do not much appreciate, an athletic conductor for a real change, and an almost savage sound they did not expect from their home orchestra.

More Shostakovich please, Tonhalle!

John Rhodes