Valiant Mahler’s “Fifth” by Opera House Orchestra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Rachmaninov, Mahler Philharmonia Zurich, Lise de la Salle (piano), Fabio Luisi (conductor), Zurich Opera House, Zurich 18.2.15 (JR)

Rachmaninov:        Piano Concerto No. 3
Mahler:                  Symphony No. 5


Some opera house orchestras round the world (such as the Met) have been emerging from their dingy pits for some while now to perform “regular” repertoire on stage, either in the concert hall or – where possible – in their operatic homes. It is a fairly recent phenomenon for Zurich Opera’s orchestra, recently renamed Philharmonia Zurich: in fact this concert was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its creation, having previously been the Tonhalle und Theaterorchester Zürich, so playing above and below ground. This was the first time I had heard them play anything other than operatic or ballet accompaniment.

Clearly the players relished the opportunity to play some meaty works. Fabio Luisi, now known principally for his opera conducting, also visibly relished the return to standard symphonic fare. The audience (a pleasing full house) was a mix of regular operagoers and some Mahler fans, and keen to hear a different orchestra other than the Tonhalle. Zurich is a bit of a one-horse town as far as orchestras (and theatre) is concerned, although I must mention the excellent Zurich Chamber Orchestra (under Sir Roger Norrington) and occasional visiting orchestras.

The opera house dedicated this series of orchestral concerts to Vienna and Mahler in particular. We have already had Das Lied von der Erde and Mahler’s Sixth is to come in March under the baton of Mikko Franck. To assist the acoustics, the scenery-makers had made an acoustic surround, at the sides, rear and top of the stage which looked like the Meccano I played with as a child. I am unsure what it was made of, it looked metallic, it could have been some sort of light-weight fibreboard – it should have been wood.

Turning first to the Rachmaninov: the young (28) French pianist Lise de la Salle is the “artist in residence” at the opera-house and with this concerto she completed a whole cycle of Rachmaninov. With the pit covered, the opera house was able to bring the stage out into the Stalls, so far many it felt as though we sitting round the piano. Strangely, the piano sounded muffled, as did the orchestra – I was expecting to be blown out of my seat. Quite where the sound went is a mystery, given that the opera-house is about half the size of a small concert hall. The woodwind, in particular, were inaudible.

The concerto takes a little while to get going; de la Salle tackled the gentle passages with delicacy and energetic passages with Gallic passion, verve and aplomb. It is a fiendish exciting solo part and one can forgive de la Salle for foregoing some accuracy in favour of speed and attack, though at times there were too many slips for comfort. It all felt a little rushed, I wished for more relaxation and phrasing at times: Luisi did not assist by taking the work at full pelt.

The Mahler also suffered somewhat from Luisi’s whirlwind approach; he was a power-house on the podium, with occasional balletic turns, altogether quite tireless. It was a pleasure to watch him, rather than have him submerged at the front of the pit. The sound however remained curiously restricted, the climaxes were never as thrilling and spine-tingling as they can be and usually always are in the concert hall. My neighbour (fellow critic) and I conjectured as to the reasons and agreed the woodwind should be raised (they were hidden behind the strings), and then the brass (partly hidden) and percussion raised still further. More work also needs to be done on the “acoustic shell”.

Luisi was clearly at home in the work itself, paying attention to detail; the final pages had been particularly well rehearsed. The Scherzo had lashings of Viennese lilt, though the famous Adagietto lacked poignancy until the final bars. However not all the members of the orchestra had the music in their blood and there were some uneven and uncertain passages. The strings, surprisingly the first violins in particular, were occasionally scrawny, though the leader Bartlomiej Niziol was splendid. Also worthy of mention were the principal horn, trumpet and trombone.

A major Mahler symphony must be viewed as a mammoth undertaking for an opera-house orchestra, requiring a number of extras. I felt they were valiant in the attempt and the result was to be applauded if not one to rank alongside the many Mahler 5s I have had the pleasure and good fortune of hearing over the years from symphony orchestras in concert halls.

One complaint: the management curiously decided to start this very long concert at 8 p.m. which meant that it was half-past ten by the time the symphony came to an end. (I would have preferred the Mahler to have stood on its own: mercifully the Mahler 6 will be played on its own, with a 7.30 start). We were generously all invited to the back of the stage for some drinks but many in the queue (myself included) gave up in favour of an earlier tram home – management should remember that those not in the arts have to be in the office at 8 on a weekday and my elderly neighbour did not even make it past the interval.

So a very mixed bag: three stars for the performance, two (just) for the acoustics, one for the late start but full marks though for effort.

John Rhodes

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