Pictorial Alpine Symphony Brought to Life by Zinman and the Tonhalle

 SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Mozart, R. Strauss: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Alexandre Tharaud (piano), Tobias Melle (photographer), David Zinman, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 “Jenamy”
R. Strauss:  Alpine Symphony

A mystery was solved about ten years ago when the identity of the French pianist for whom Mozart wrote his 9th Piano Concerto, which had baffled Mozart scholars, was discovered. The work had hitherto been known as the “Jeunehomme” Concerto, referring to Mozart’s tender age of 21 when he composed the piece. It now transpires (from research by a Viennese musicologist) that the mystery woman was actually one Victoire Jenamy, a daughter of Jean George Noverre, a famous dancer who was one of Mozart’s friends, and it was she or her father who commissioned the concerto in Vienna in 1776.

Alfred Brendel played this concerto at his final public appearance in Vienna and called it “one of the greatest wonders of the world.” Einstein had dubbed it “Mozart’s ‘Eroica’”.  I am not sure I can be quite as effusive in my praise. The work may well, for its time, have few predecessors as far as mastery of orchestration and innovation is concerned. And perhaps it is one of Mozart’s finest works which he never surpassed, but this performance left me rather cold. Its acclaimed melodic exuberance failed to bowl me over: it was all quite sprightly and charming, soloist Alexandre Tharaud sensitive and nimble throughout (the Andantino played with considerable poise), with deft accompaniment from a very much reduced orchestra, but the performance was simply a titbit for the main meal of the evening, the Alpine Symphony.  

Tobias Melle is a photographer and musician and he takes photographs to match certain classical works, such as Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony”, Tchaikovsky’s “Fifth”, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Dvorak’s “New World” .  In about 2000 he set about taking photos of the Bavarian Alps, having been granted a special permit by the local authorities to wander and camp in remote areas. The venture took him three years, climbing different peaks, in varied weather conditions, and lugging 35 kilos of equipment in his rucksack. The first performance was in Munich in 2003. The resultant photos are utterly spectacular and blend perfectly with the music (especially sunrise, sunset, the storm and the glacier scenes), though by the end of the evening I did not want to see another mountain for a while.

David Zinman retires as the orchestra’s Chief Conductor at the end of this season and he is using his final year to revisit some of his favourite pieces and composers. This was audibly one of them, and his fine performance can be heard on a 2006 DVD and seen with Tobias Melle’s awe-inspiring photos.

The huge orchestra filled the whole stage, complete with two timpanists, organist, celesta, two wind machines, Wagner horns, cowbells and offstage brass.

The piece started in almost pitch darkness. The hall’s chandeliers were switched off as were the orchestra’s music-stand lights and the piece grew eerily out of the darkness, as dawn came slowly to the mountains on the huge screen behind the orchestra. Before the sun appeared in all its visual and sonic glory, the players had been granted dim lighting with which to see their scores. I cannot think of a more appropriate piece which is suited to photographic accompaniment and, for most of the time, this enhanced my enjoyment of the work. Each slide was perfectly timed, whether the fauna and flora of the area, the jagged peaks, the wizened local farmer, the Alpine meadows, the waterfalls and the breathtaking panoramas. Zinman and his orchestra played magnificently throughout; there was a sense of a special occasion. As the evening sun set, the hall seemed to be bathed in golden light. As night approached, the moon and the stars came out and the hall and orchestra were again thrust into total blackness.

 John Rhodes