Youngsters Save the Day

 SwitzerlandSwitzerland Berlioz, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky: Rafal Blechacz (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra, Michael Sanderling (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich 28.2.2013 (JR).

Berlioz: Overture “Le Corsaire”
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 2
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4

Michael Sanderling. Photo Credit:  Marco Borggreve
Michael Sanderling. Photo Credit: Marco Borggreve

Occasionally one just has to feel sorry for an orchestra’s management. The Tonhalle announced that this season would be their “Saison Russe” and one of the centrepieces was to be a series of performances of Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony under their now veteran principal conductor David Zinman. The work is then to go on tour via Luxembourg to Berlin (where they play in the Philharmonie), Hanover, Munich, Dortmund, Stuttgart and Cologne. However the winter flu bug has struck down Maestro Zinman and bronchitis followed by a lung infection have set in: his doctor has ordered four weeks in an Alpine clinic. Frantic telephone calls yield assistance in the shape of both Michael Sanderling and the orchestra’s principal-conductor-in-waiting Lionel Bringuier. They have to do quite some shuffling of their other rehearsals to assist the Tonhalle and some wealthy Friends of the Tonhalle jump in to finance these replacements.

Apparently Michael Sanderling rehearsed this programme in Zurich and then had to be flown by private charter flight to Dresden, where he is in charge of the Dresden Philharmonic, for another rehearsal and then back again, same day, to Zurich. We were informed he was also standing in, elsewhere, for an indisposed Kurt Masur.

Michael Sanderling has adopted something of his eminent father Kurt’s conducting style, long flailing arms coaxing the music from the orchestra. Sanderling appears to have given up the cello for an auspicious career on the podium. I contemplated the many sons who follow in their father’s footsteps onto the podium, from Kleiber, Jansons, Järvi, Masur – and many others.

The Corsairehad plenty of swashbuckling voltage and bravado and the strings sounded very well rehearsed in their very fast passages. Full marks to Sanderling too for not asking for the programme to be changed in any way, he certainly seemed to be on top of all the evening’s works.

All ears on the soloist rather than the orchestra or conductor for the piano concerto. I must admit I had not heard of Rafal Blechacz, a young Polish pianist who in 2005 won the Warsaw Chopin Competition. He impressed with his lightness of touch, neatness of finger-work and maturity of interpretation. The concerto itself was started by Beethoven when only a teenager (it is really No. 1), though Beethoven revised it over the next ten years. The first two movements are Mozartian in style and surprisingly rather tuneless, until the final movement Rondo and molto allegro, both playful and with a catchy melody, saves the day. Blechacz rewarded us with two short Chopin encores, charming and delightful.

I did not expect, from the Tonhalle, raw Russian edge in the Tchaikovsky and I was not wrong. The orchestra’s merits are its ensemble and polish and those qualities brought out subtle details in the Tchaikovsky that one can miss in other more “pack a punch” performances. Sadly there were some brass glitches at the outset and other rough edges which will need smoothing out before the orchestra takes the work on tour. There were fine contributions from principal oboe and bassoon in the lovingly tender Andantino and the strings impressed with their dazzling deftness and strummed pizzicato in the Scherzo. No-one was allowed to slumber after the crash bang wallop opening of the final Allegro con fuoco and the final electrifying coda brought a huge roar from the audience, which was mainly directed to Michael Sanderling for saving the day.

John Rhodes