Not Bruckner, not Dvorak but uplifting Schumann: Dohnanyi and the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Carter, Bartok, Ravel, Schumann:  Tonhalle Zurich, Tonhalle Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin), 8.5.2014   ( JR)

Carter:    Sound Fields
Bartok:  Violin Concerto No. 1
Ravel: Tzigane
Schumann:   Symphony No. 2


It should have been Bruckner, his Seventh Symphony to be exact. This time last year Dohnanyi gave us a thrilling account of Bruckner’s powerful Fourth Symphony and to my mind it was the best Tonhalle concert of last season. So I was very much looking forward to Bruckner’s Seventh this year only to find the ticket which came in the post referred to the main work as Dvorak, “symphony to be advised”. In the event there had been another late change of plan and we were served Schumann’s Second.

I am afraid I did not buy the half-hearted apology proffered by the Tonhalle Orchestra Intendant. Allegedly the “artist in residence”, Frank Peter Zimmermann, felt his contribution to the proposed first half of the evening, Bartok’s First Violin Concerto, too meagre and he wanted to add a complementary work, Ravel’s Tzigane. The orchestra seemingly felt duty bound to agree and Dohnanyi it appears gave way, adding he could do the Bruckner Seven in 2015.  Management felt that two violin works in the first half and then a Bruckner symphony would be too long (on a weekday Zurichers need to go to bed early to be up at 6): possibly correct (in any event Bruckner Seven can and should stand on its own). Whatever the rights and wrongs of this course, it led to plenty of empty seats. The audience, even those with subscription seats, is owed some certainty of programming. Not everyone goes to the concert hall because it’s Thursday night at the Tonhalle.

Then the Tonhalle management realised the concert might actually be too short rather than too long so a very late work by Elliott Carter’s “Sound Fields” was added, written when the composer was an astounding 98, and inspired by the geometric patterns of the paintings of Helen Frankenthaler. He need not, in my view, have bothered: although I hope I have Carter’s mental acuity at that venerable age, should I have the fortune or misfortune to reach it, I hope I have some more melody left in my bones. This music portrayed emptiness, transparency and lightness, perhaps of old age, and the audience duly seemed to expire. A few members of the orchestra sniggered. Coughers felt at liberty to interject and, for once, I didn’t actually mind.

Then the Bartok, written for his pupil Stefi Geyer, with whom he fell in love: as so often with ageing music teachers, unreciprocated, unrequited. Geyer kept the work in a music cabinet (in Zurich as it happens) for 50 years – it was written in 1908 but first performed, under the baton of Paul Sacher, in Basle, in 1958. (Geyer went on to marry a Swiss composer Walter Schulthess, moved to Zurich and became a co-founder, with her husband, of the Collegium Musicum Zurich). The Bartok is a fascinating and affectionate work, very much of two halves: the first half full of beguiling and lush Magyar harmonies and the second full of typically Bartokian jagged folk rhythms requiring fingerboard acrobatics from the soloist which Zimmermann was happy to deliver with his customary aplomb.  Special mention goes to the witty and well-matched pair of oboists (Isaac Duarte and Kaspar Zimmermann) almost copying the dance of the couples from the Concerto for Orchestra.  Somehow the piece remains strangely unsatisfactory (rather like the attempted love affair perhaps) and that is possibly why Frank Peter Zimmermann did not want to end his contribution on a low.

Ravel’s Tzigane is a charming, effervescent piece which showed off more of Zimmermann’s astounding technical prowess. The orchestra applauded as warmly as the audience and was rewarded with an encore, Paganini’s last Caprice, No. 24. Utterly breathtaking.  Having said that, this was more a case of an Artist in Dominance, rather than an Artist in Residence: I feared a second encore was on the cards.

Dohnanyi seemed to shed at least ten years to conduct us through a thrilling, swift and uplifting performance of Schumann’s Second. Schumann’s friends thought this symphony his finest and, given a quality performance like this one, I tend to agree. There are shades of Haydn, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, and even shades of Brucknerian cadences and fermatas. The slow opening gave us the sleek, restrained transparency, mirroring a Bach chorale, so typical of Dohnanyi’s academic intelligent musicality, before the movement burst into its thrills and spills. From my seat behind the orchestra I could see Dohnanyi had a smile on his face throughout most of this light-hearted and flowing work, which he conducted from memory. The fizzy Scherzo kept our feet tapping and heads nodding as the strings brought us scampering to the end of the movement. The Adagio gave the strings a chance to wallow and the entire woodwind section their chance to shine (Isaac Duarte on oboe, again) before the orchestra dashed through the Finale, hell for leather, an enthusiastic timpanist ending the symphony with panache.

In the end I have to admit I had not missed the Bruckner: it was a pity, though, about the empty seats.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment