Spoiled Beethoven and Strauss from the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Beethoven. R. Strauss: Marc-André Hamelin, Tonhalle Orchester, David Zinman (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich 20.9.2012 (JR)

Beethoven: Overture “Egmont”
Piano Concerto No. 4
Richard Strauss: “Ein Heldenleben”

Marc-André Hamelin Copyright Sim Canetty Clarke.

It was a pity that this fine concert was spoiled for reasons quite beyond the orchestra’s control. For details. read on.

It was heart-warming to be presented with the traditional programme of overture, concerto and symphony (or in this case, symphonic poem). Zinman and his orchestra opened with a vigorous, heroic and joyous “Egmont”; the opening bars had clearly benefited from some extra rehearsal and were particularly striking and brooding.

Then we were treated to Marc-André Hamelin’s version of Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto. The audience – particularly those with sight of the keyboard – were mesmerised by his playing, soft and lyrical where it needed to be, sufficiently muscular in the more bravura passages. Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra were reverent accompanists. Everything seemed to be going well. Until the cadenza: Hamelin, a composer as well as pianist, chose to insert his own cadenza for the first movement, which was interesting, but simply did not fit. Hamelin absolved himself with some poetic playing in the short slow second movement. Then more irritation arrived with the second of Hamelin’s cadenzas which started on a deliberately wrong note (I hope it was deliberate) and then went on in Villa-Lobos style. It sounded as though someone had switched CDs mid-concert. It was clearly not to everyone’s taste and applause at the end was somewhat subdued, but not enough to prevent an encore, the “Minute Waltz”. Another surprise was in store because with around 20 seconds to go, Hamelin re-composed the ending with some jazzy syncopations of his own making: at least this was a bit of fun.

The orchestra may have yearned for some of the conservative pianists who performed the piece with the Tonhalle in the past, who were dutifully listed in the programme and included Ernst von Dohnanyi in 1906, Artur Schnabel in 1911, Eugen d’Albert in 1914, Backhaus in 1940, Gieseking in the War years, Clara Haskil in 1949/57, Arrau, Rubinstein, Curzon, Serkin, Brendel, Ashkenazy and so the list went on.

Zinman then led his orchestra through a polished and energetic Heldenleben, layering the different themes with aplomb. Tempi were always spot on. All sections and principals showed their mettle, with top honours going – as always in this work – to the solo violin, in this performance Klaidi Sahatci, the concertmaster, who was simply splendid. His colleagues were visibly enamoured. There was spiky woodwind to depict Strauss’ critics and a bombastic battle scene, though Zinman kept back the visceral excitement until the final onslaught; I have heard this passage more thrilling. So what spoiled the performance: apart from the unrestrained coughs and unwrapping of noisy cough sweets signalling the start of autumn, it was an almost constant electronic whine from – I think – somewhere in the Gallery which was inaudible in the loud passages but disconcerting in the quiet ones. Not many in the audience appeared to hear it (which says something) but one saw orchestra members’ heads turn to try to locate the source of the nuisance. If it is something within the Tonhalle’s area of responsibility, they need to track it down fast; I do not believe it was a hearing aid battery problem, it was too loud and repetitive for that. A shame.

John Rhodes