Jordan Comes Home

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Mussorgsky, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky:  Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, François-Frédéric Guy (piano), Philippe Jordan, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 5-12-2013 (JR)

Mussorgsky:  Night on a Bare Mountain
Saint-Saëns:  Piano concerto No. 5 (“Egyptian”)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”)


Zurich-raised and trained conductor Philippe Jordan, currently boss at the Paris Opera and from next season additionally to be Chief Conductor at the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, returned to his home town to conduct a thoroughly entertaining concert with the Tonhalle Orchestra.

Proceedings commenced with a Night on a Bare Mountain, but not the version often heard as orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov, but in Mussorgsky’s original version which only surfaced in 1968. Rimsky had felt his colleague’s piece was too savage and dissonant: I think however he was right.  I must say that the original version, whilst well played, failed to win this listener over, I kept hearing the marvels of the revised version and feeling something (major) was indeed missing. The original version comes over as shrill and edgy, coarsely orchestrated, though the orchestra played it perfectly competently and it made for a good curtain-raiser.

The “Egyptian” piano concerto by Saint-Saëns was new to me, nor had I had the pleasure of hearing François-Frédéric Guy before. I was impressed by both.

It appears that the concerto is nicknamed “The Egyptian” for two reasons: firstly, Saint-Saëns composed it during one of his frequent winter holidays in Egypt and secondly, the music in its middle movement is quite exotic, displaying influences from Javanese (Gamelan), Spanish and especially music from the Middle-East.

No exoticism is however evident in the opening Allegro animato. It made for easy if rather vacuous listening; the piano part was however challenging and expertly and precisely executed by François-Frédéric Guy.

The Andante was lush with impressionistic sounds representing frogs and the nocturnal chirping of crickets. At one point the soloist plays a discordant sixth, the metallic sound of which had the audience puzzled. The movement is one of Saint-Saëns most interesting and beguiling compositions.  Liaison between soloist and conductor was always finely attuned, the two have clearly been collaborating for quite some while.

The final movement had the soloist tub-thumping a Romanian dance and rushing all over the keyboard to conclude the movement with a triumphant flourish. The concerto deserves more outings than it gets and with playing of Guy’s distinction it is, whilst not a heavyweight work, a delight for the ear.

We were then treated to a generous encore: Liszt’s transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod, most skilfully played by Guy.

The Pathétique received a heart-felt interpretation from Philippe Jordan, conducted without the need of a score.  The first movement unfolded naturally, the woodwind shone in the opening Adagio, and there was no holding back of power and muscle in the ensuing Allegro. The first violins were dazzling in the second movement and Jordan never over-egged the pathos. In the central section, the Viennese lilt was infectious and will serve him well in Vienna.

Jordan built up the tension gradually in the fast third movement to a shattering climax, with the bass drum sounding like gun shots, and there was no way Jordan could prevent the audience from applauding, many no doubt falling into the trap of thinking the work was over. One lady actually got up and started to rush for her coat, then realizing more was to come.

The Finale was nobly played, with the orchestra displaying its polish and finesse rather than Russian edge, but the end, when it came, was wonderfully painful, the grumbling double basses signifying a heartbeat finally coming to rest. As we know, Tchaikovsky died under mysterious circumstances only a few days after the work’s first performance.

The performance left this listener and the audience suitably drained.


John Rhodes

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