Runnicles and Ax Impress all at the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Elgar and Brahms Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Emanuel Ax (piano), Donald Runnicles, (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich   6.11.14 (JR)

Elgar:   Serenade for Strings
Enigma Variations
Brahms:  Piano Concerto No. 1


This was Donald Runnicles’ debut with the Tonhalle in Zurich, surprisingly so given his frequent performances and conductorships in the rest of the German-speaking world. At 60, his career seems to be on the up and up.

 Runnicles favours the big, full Romantic sound which for some time has been unfashionable. The audience (and orchestra) lapped it up.

 The first part of the concert was dedicated to English music, Elgar. His “Serenade for Strings” evokes the green countryside of England, even when the first snow of imminent winter has just covered the hills rounds Zurich. The strings played with fervour matched with delicacy; if I closed my eyes, it could have been the London Philharmonic. The measured “Larghetto” had the audience spellbound and even provoked premature applause. The Tonhalle Orchestra has apparently only played this work once before (under Sir Roger Norrington four years ago) and the strings relished the chance to display their joint virtuosity.

 The “Enigma Variations” benefitted from Runnicles’ full frontal approach, with timpani actively encouraged to come to the fore, whilst evoking Edwardian England in the quieter passages. The piece was full of wit and swagger, and “Nimrod” full of grandeur – I confess it brought a tear to the eye. Elgar is not intuitive to a non-British orchestra and in the fast string passages it showed. There were one or two rough edges, an untidy ending, an early entry by the woodwind in “Dorabella”, but it mattered not a jot – this was a very fine performance, and it thrilled to the core.

 At the interval I wondered if the rousing “Enigma” should have been the final work in the programme with the piano concerto placed before the interval. A Swiss friend told me that perhaps the order of play had been selected so that the locals did not disappear after hearing the soloist.

 As it turned out, Emanuel Ax accompanied by Donald Runnicles packed such a punch in the Brahms that the order of the works was probably the right one.

 Emanuel Ax, such a short name, such a big name. He looks like your friendly old uncle – but plays rather better than your friendly old uncle. I heard Buchbinder, another big name, play the very same concerto in the same hall just a few weeks ago (with Fedoseyev and the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow); Buchbinder gave us a classic but in retrospect rather restrained interpretation. Ax put his heart and soul into his impressive performance which delighted all the way (except when virtually interrupted by stray electronic high-pitched bleeps – which the whole hall and orchestra heard – emanating I suspect from someone’s hearing aid). Runnicles was no quiet accompanist, the opening was gripping and all orchestral interjections were played with exuberance.

 The audience’s warm reception was rewarded by an encore from Ax’ homeland, a charming Chopin Waltz.

 Given the dire state of well-publicised current orchestral negotiations (or lack of them) at the Atlanta Symphony, might one hope that the Tonhalle could garner Runnicles for the post of Chief Guest Conductor?  The orchestra played so well for him, they described him in rehearsal as “no fuss, straight to the music”; they bonded immediately it seems and one could hear it. He would be very welcome here.



John Rhodes

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