Zurich Festival Centres on Wagner

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Brahms and Bruckner: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, András Schiff (piano), David Zinman(conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 27.6.2013 (JR)

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2
BrucknerSymphony No. 3

One cannot compare Zurich’s Music Festival with festivals in smaller towns such as Lucerne, Salzburg or Bayreuth where even non classical music-lovers cannot fail to spot that there is a special atmosphere in the place, musical sweetmeats in confectioners’ windows, posters, flags and banners adding to the festival spirit. Zurich’s Festival is much more low-key, less dressed-up and all-pervasive but still manages to attract some big names and draw capacity audiences.

András Schiff, no less, has been the soloist “in residence” in Zurich this season. His Brahms (the Second Piano Concerto) unsurprisingly did not disappoint, forthright in the tumultuous passages, nimble in the fast sections, delicate in the quiet interludes; always immaculate, just the right weight and evident thoughtfulness. In the third movement the orchestra’s principal cellist Rafael Rosenfeld almost stole the show with playing of great sensitivity. Tempi were perfectly judged, no eccentricity, never hurried or laboured. This was an authoritative performance to savour: smiles all round from players and audience alike.

And so to Bruckner’s Third. But first I must mention Wagner. The connection between Wagner and Zurich is honoured by the Zurich Festival this year as its abiding theme. Wagner lived in Zurich for nine years and it became one of his most creative periods. He had come to Switzerland, fleeing political unrest in Germany at that time. He made many new friends, including Max and Mathilde Wesendonck. Wagner fell in love with Mathilde and Tristan and Isolde was the result.

Bruckner adored Wagner and dedicated his Third Symphony to his idol. One night, it is said, Wagner dreamt that the Pope had come to visit him. Wagner wanted, of course, to greet him with utmost respect but the Holy Father reversed the roles, bowed with humility and kissed the hand of the Bayreuth Meister. Then he grabbed a bottle of cognac and disappeared. In Wagner’s dream the Pope resembled Bruckner.

David Zinman gave us a magnificent performance of this early work. If one discounts Bruckner symphonies numbers 0 (or is it 00?), 1 and 2, and in my view one can, the Third is Bruckner’s first major oeuvre. It opens the sequence of Bruckner’s masterpieces. It is not a sophisticated piece: even in its third revision (there were six in all!), as performed here, it feels clumsy, full of bombast, and yet in every movement one clearly hears Bruckner’s unique and inspired voice. There is plenty of grandeur and the characteristic blocks of sound. Discordant elements were brought out, not glossed over. Zinman impressed from the outset, not shying away from extreme contrasts of dynamics and with many exciting build-ups of tension, ably assisted by principal timpanist Christian Hartmann. This was a lengthy concert, with two major works, and Zinman, not the youngest of conductors, did not lack energy. I heard the second of two performances; according to one of the players, I heard the better performance.

The orchestra gave their all as the season is nears its end; they and their conductor were clearly more than happy with the end result. The audience, normally polite and somewhat reserved in its applause, nearly roared its approval.

John Rhodes