Superb Shostakovich from Sanderling and the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Haydn, Hartmann, Kurtág, Shostakovich   Tonhalle Orchestra, Michael Sanderling (conductor), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Tonhalle  Zurich  26.9.2014  (JR)

Michael Sanderling Photo: Marco Borggreve
Michael Sanderling
Photo: Marco Borggreve

Haydn:            Symphony No. 64 “Tempora mutantur
Hartmann:      Concerto funebre
Kurtág:           From “Signs, Games and Messages”
From “Kafka, fragments”
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

I cannot help watching young conductor Michael Sanderling without recalling many first-rate concerts at the Festival Hall conducted by his late father Kurt. There is a family facial resemblance, and his son’s conducting style owes something to his father’s (without the flapping arms), though more flamboyant. (There is now a Sanderling conducting dynasty, Michael’s brother Stefan and half-brother Thomas are also conductors.)

This varied programme – under the banner “New Classics” – commenced with Haydn’s 64th symphony, not one so often played. It is one of Haydn’s most eccentric, mainly because of its slow movement. The opening “allegro con spirito” displayed plenty of Haydnesque wit; it flowed swiftly along, full of joy. The Largo keeps stopping and starting, bringing Bruckner to mind with its unexpected pauses, and bringing a smile to the face. The audience enjoyed the charm and style of the Minuet and Trio, before Sanderling launched into the final furious Presto.

On the 1st of September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. Kurt Amadeus Hartmann was already writing some funeral music but it became to be seen as a reaction to those events. The beginning and end of what is in effect a violin concerto contrasts the bleak hopelessness of the events of the time with a cry of anguish for the past and a glimmer of hope for the future. Hartmann stayed in Germany choosing “inner emigration”, helping Jewish friends and opponents of the regime to escape. His fine concerto funebre was first performed in St. Gallen, Switzerland, at the end of the War. The work starts with the quietest possible opening by the violin soloist and this had the audience transfixed. Kopatchinskaja’s formidable technique and her impish character were evident from the outset in this beautiful, soulful piece. There were some passages of frenzied attack; other quieter passages brought the string writing of both Tippett and Vaughan Williams to mind.

Kopatchinskaja then returned onto the stage (the orchestra having left) to play, almost by way of encore, some fragments from two works by György Kurtág. At first I was unsure whether Kopatchinskaja was tuning up or whether the piece had begun. The pieces, if one can call them that, are sparingly written in the manner of Webern and were more a series of interesting and unusual noises, characterful bits and bobs, with the soloist sometimes speaking, singing or shouting. Kopatchinskaja’s charisma, youth and cheeky personality won over the audience and earned her lengthy applause. Kopatchinskaja is making her debut with the Tonhalle this season, as with the Berlin Philharmonic (playing Eötvös), the Philharmonia (under Ashkenazy) the Stuttgarters (under Norrington) and the Royal Stockholm (in a concert in Zurich). She was recently named Instrumentalist of the Year by the Royal Philharmonic Society: on the strength alone of this concert, a richly deserved award.

Kurt Sanderling was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich in Sanderling’s long years of exile from Nazi Germany. He imparted much of his personal knowledge of Shostakovich’s works to his sons and consequently the tempi his son Michael chose can be said to have come from the “horse’s mouth” even if counter to what ended up in the final score (apparently Sanderling was questioned on this by an astute viola player during a rehearsal). Consequently this performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony was authoritative. The Moderato opening movement was quite fast and never palled (as it can before it springs to life). Later there were impressive contributions from leader Andreas Janke and flautist Sabine Poyé Morel. Generally, this was a performance of contrasts, fast and furious passages juxtaposed with achingly beautiful string playing. It was uplifting to hear Shostakovich at the Tonhalle; it was sorely missed during the late Zinman era.

Had Lionel Bringuier not been selected as the Tonhalle’s new Principal Conductor, the orchestra could have done much worse than opt for Michael Sanderling. After Sanderling stepped in for an indisposed Zinman whilst on tour in Germany last year, there is a palpable bond between orchestra and maestro, which yields most satisfying results. It is to be hoped that Sanderling will return in future seasons to Zurich for more Shostakovich.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment