Majestic Bruckner from Dohnányi and the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Sibelius, Bruckner Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Tonhalle Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)11.4.2013  (JR)

Sibelius: Violin Concerto
Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 (“Romantic”)

This concert will probably turn out to have been the highlight of the current Zurich season. The performance of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony simply could not be bettered. Before that, however, we heard Sibelius’ Violin Concerto with “artist in residence” Christoph Tetzlaff.

There is no doubting Tetzlaff’s effortless virtuosity and pure intonation. The first movement was a veritable tour de force, Tetzlaff swaying and bobbing throughout. The audience was riveted, the orchestra provided sensitive accompaniment under Dohnányi’s expert guidance. The second movement gave the soloist some respite and Tetzlaff was able to relax before launching into the final movement’s frenetic dance-like rhythms (Donald Tovey likened the movement to “a polonaise for polar bears”). The orchestral interludes lacked perhaps a little Nordic gloom, despite some very sonorous brass; and yet the whole performance lacked emotion, spontaneity and voltage. Tetzlaff is not by any stretch of the imagination a showman, and whilst that is in itself a virtue, it did not serve the Sibelius; he is too emotionally reticent. The more academic encore, Bach, was much more suited to Tetzlaff’s character and academic style.

Dohnányi is quite remarkable for his age (mid-eighties). He comes onto stage at a jaunty pace, conducts without support, let alone a chair, and needed no score for the Bruckner. He still conducts with muscularity which many a younger conductor cannot match. His tempi were judiciously chosen for each movement, without changes of gear, the underlying pulse was always steady, and this all enabled this great symphony to unfold naturally, unhurried, in turn relaxed and – when required – with ample power and volume. Dohnányi’s grasp and love of this work was evident throughout and the Tonhalle orchestra responded to him magnificently. The Tonhalle has a rich history of fine Bruckner performances under, amongst others, Walter, Böhm, Celibidache, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Giulini, Jochum, Masur and Haitink.

The first movement was particularly thrilling with fine contributions from the faultless principal horn and his colleagues. Dohnányi highlighted much detail in the score, reverting to Bruckner’s original version (for which he made an excellent case) rather than any of the later ones.

The brass was resplendent in the Scherzo, the hunting chorus, and in the woodwind oboist Isaac Duarte and flautist Sabine Moyé-Porel dove-tailed perfectly. Bruckner abandoned his attempt at programming the symphony by the last movement and went for his trade mark blocks of sound. The acoustics of the shoe-box Tonhalle were perfect for this work, which whilst loud was never unpleasant on the ear. The timpanist, Christian Hartmann, applied lashings of elbow grease to achieve maximum effect. The final Coda led from noble beginnings to a shattering climax and plenty of cheers for the masterly and amiable conductor, one of the last old grandees in the profession.

John Rhodes