United Kingdom PROM 5: R. Strauss, Dvořák, Beethoven: Julia Fischer (violin); Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman (conductor), Royal Albert Hall, London, 21.7.2014 (CS)
R. Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche
Dvořák: Violin Concerto in A minor
Beethoven: Symphony No.6 in F major (Pastoral)
When in 1879 he set about composing a new concerto for violin, Antonin Dvořák drew upon his personal experience as a violinist and viola player – he had played since he was a small boy in Bohemia – and the vibrant, soulful melodies of his homeland, tempered with Brahmsian influences and the guiding hand of violinist Joseph Joachim who was the dedicatee of Dvořák’s concerto (and of Brahms’ Violin Concerto of 1878).
This is a work of bold ideas – the structure, particularly of the first and second movements, is highly original (though some have found it imbalanced) – and robust themes. German violinist Julia Fischer, who recorded this concerto with the Tonhalle Orchestra in 2013 (review), adopted a more introspective approach than might have been expected, nestling herself far back within the string section and repeatedly engaging in sensitive dialogue with her instrumental partners, leaning into the midst of the players and turning her violin so that it might conjoin within their countermelodies. Undoubtedly, there are passages of intimate musical conversation and still quietude but, while her playing was technically flawless – with the virtuosic octave passages and double-stopping flung off with ease – I found Fischer’s restraint not always suited to the musical candour.
The Royal Albert Hall is a vast arena and the opening moments of the first movement, in which the violin presents diverse musical material in a free-flowing outpouring, must have struggled to ‘speak’ to those in the auditorium’s far reaches. There is no orchestral ‘introduction’ to enable the listener to settle into the work’s sentiments, rather the violin must use the melodic and textural flourishes to arrest the listener’s attention: the music is simple, but also direct and has a feeling of artlessness and freedom. But, while she did not always reach out naturally to the Hall, Fischer’s tone was unfailingly sweet, especially in the soaring E string passages which were enriched by a glistening vibrato; and as she increasingly allowed her violin to sing freely, opening her performance to the auditorium, she gave vigour to the folk-inspired melodies with their wide leaps and sharply-defined contours.
The second movement was the most successful. Fischer’s ruminative mode was just right for the unfolding melodic meanderings and she found a well-judged note of poignancy in the violin’s beautiful lyrical lines, emphasising the harmonic nuances with insight. The Tonhalle Orchestra, too, conducted by David Zinman, struck a satisfying balance between rich sentimentality and the more turbulent rhetoric of the central minor key section.
In the final movement, I’d have liked a little more playfulness and light. Fischer was fleet and silvery at the top but there was the occasional raspy accent as the vigorous rhythms propelled the folk melodies high on the G string. The Tonhalle, however, sounded somewhat heavy-footed in the furiant, dudy and dumka which form the episodes of the sonata-rondo dance.
While technically Fischer dazzled, interpretatively I’d have liked more zest and sparkle. But, the Prommers were rapturous in their response, so perhaps I was alone with my ‘misgivings’. And, the RAH crowd were delighted to be granted an encore – and an unusual one at that: the third movement of Hindemith’s G minor Sonata for unaccompanied violin (Op.11). Fischer’s incredible virtuosity, concentration and absorption were astonishing; one felt that a fire alarm might go off and she would continue to play, enrapt by the music’s intricacies.
Richard Strauss’s mischievous tone poem, Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, opened the concert. Zinman adopted a fairly leisurely approach and avoided undue bombast but this was a beguiling reading and, once things had become more composed after the first few slightly unsettled passages, there was some wonderfully warm playing from the horns, drawing us into the tale; deep-hued melodies from the violas, clarinets and bassoons, when the protagonist escapes from the market-place where he has caused such chaos; buoyant verve from the cellos and basses; and some slinky playing from the violins in the more luxuriant passages, although the sectional discipline was not always absolute. Eulenspiegel’s procession to the scaffold was focused and full of controlled menace, and the final recollection of his perky theme fittingly insouciant.
The music of Beethoven has been at the heart of Zinman’s relationship with the Tonhalle Orchestra during his 19 years as music director: together they recorded the first cycle of Beethoven symphonies which made use of Del Mar’s Urtext editions for Bärenreiter, a cycle which was celebrated for its fusion of scholarly insight with freshness and polish (review).
Conducting from memory, in this performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pastoral’, in the second half of the programme Zinman demonstrated just how innate this music has become, effortlessly weaving dialogues between the orchestral groupings, allowing the music to breathe while maintaining an unfailing forward movement. This was especially noticeable in the second movement Andante molto moto where the subtle hiatuses were merely natural pauses for breath within an ongoing journey through the pastoral and musical landscapes.
The dance of the third movement Allegro whirled more swiftly; Zinman defined the musical lines with clarity, and the independent voices spoke cleanly – the second bassoon clearly enjoyed his solo motifs. Indeed, the Tonhalle’s joy in the music was evident throughout.
This was David Zinman’s final concert with the Tonhalle: he leaves his post of conductor and music director after 19 years in which he has raised the standard of the ensemble’s playing to truly international level. He went out with an exuberant encore: an arrangement (by the orchestra’s Eb clarinettist, Florian Walser) of a folk tune from the Swiss-Italian border, which allowed each section to shine – including the percussionists who, dressed in traditional Swiss rustic smocks, jangled cowbells and indulged in high jinks with some wooden spoons – and entered into the spirit of the Festival. The Prommers loved it.