Nagano and the Torture of the Alphorns

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Haas, Käser, Wicky, Bruckner Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Kent Nagano (conductor), Hornroh Modern Alphorn Quartet (Balthasar Streiff, Lukas Briggen, Jennifer Tauder, Michael Büttler), Tonalle, Zurich 24.4.15 (JR)

Georg Friedrich Haas: Concerto Grosso No. 1 for four alpine horns and orchestra
Mischa Käser: 4 glacial sediments from “Gletsc” for alphorn quartet
Anton Wicky:Heilig” for alphorn quartet
Anton Bruckner: Symphony No. 6

On the day of this concert, a research institute revealed that people in Switzerland – no doubt frequently bathed in milk chocolate and Gruyère cheese – were reckoned to be the world’s happiest. Usually the burghers of Zurich are are told that they live in the world’s “best” city or the most expensive. Certainly the research was not carried out after hearing the first half of this concert; it probably made many of those who attended considerably less happy. 48 minutes of alphorn is 45 minutes too many – unless, that is, a new form of torture is being invented. This may be sacrilege to Swiss ears, revering the instrument that was originally meant for use in alpine valleys summoning the cows to milking or sending messages to farmers in other valleys, not designed for the concert platform.

Georg Friedrich Haas is an Austrian composer who currently teaches at Columbia University in New York and knows his way round tonal systems. Commissioned jointly by Bavarian Radio, Wien Modern, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Tonhalle Orchestra, Haas has composed a concerto for orchestra and four alpine horns exploring the world of micro-intervals, tones outside the usual “tempered” system (the notes you can play on a piano) which therefore just sound wrong to our accustomed ears. Nagano confided, during an after-concert talk (rendered in acceptably good German, by the way) to a small section of the audience, that the orchestra had found the first ten minutes difficult to listen to and to play (likening it to having a cold shower) but that thereafter the work had grown on them. I was less fortunate. The first ten minutes reminded me strongly of the air raid sirens which the municipality of Zurich regularly tests sending everyone scurrying to their obligatory and hermetically sealed air raid shelters in their cellars. There was no possibility of such a lucky escape to those incarcerated in the Tonhalle, sadly. The central section brought to mind aircraft and train noises, the end was particularly loud and unpleasant and made some nearby hearing aids whistle. After that, audience reaction was surprisingly polite – but that’s the happy Swiss for you. It wasn’t a piece of music as we know it, it was a sonic experience, but not one this reviewer is yet ready for.

We moved on to Mischa Käser’s “Gletsc”. The most interesting part of this work is its name. The German for glacier is “Gletscher” and the missing letters are meant to signify that glaciers are melting due to climate change. The four movement work was palatable, after the Haas, but generally lacked interest and was unmemorable. I did however wonder whether the split notes were meant to be.

To round off the first half, almost by way of encore, a very short piece by Anton Wicky which finally sounded as though it could have taken its place in a Yodelling Festival. The audience roared, finally recognising that justice had been done to “their” national instrument.

Mahler, wisely, chose not alphorns but the gentle tinkling of cowbells in a number of his symphonies to evoke alpine pastures. Bruckner had no need for such gimmicks but his music often evokes the grandeur of the Alps that he so adored.

Nagano described Bruckner’s “Sixth” as “fragile” requiring utmost sensitivity. That could be shorthand for difficult, fragmentary and confused. If one ignores symphony numbers 00, 0, 1 and 2, his 6th is significantly less popular, and therefore less performed, than his mainstream symphonies (in no particular order) numbers 4, 7, 8, 9, 5 and 3.

Nagano advocated against rigid tempi: one could not anyhow slavishly follow metronome markings because Bruckner didn’t add any so he simply let the music breathe. I was impressed by Nagano’s interpretation, it felt very natural. The opening Majestoso was savagely majestic; with memories of the Haas still reverberating around my eardrums, the Bruckner was pure aural ambrosia. It did perhaps make me more acutely aware of the modern elements of this disjointed work. The symphony contains some of Bruckner’s finest music, but other passages are turgid and muddy – Mahler revised them but performances nowadays are usually the original version. In the Adagio Simon Fuchs’ plangent oboe made its mark and we wallowed in the lush soundscape. Nagano coaxed some lovely playing from the orchestra, particularly the cellos.

The Scherzo was exciting with its throbbing pulse and brought me to the edge of my seat. The Finale brought the work to a properly bombastic close.

Nagano cuts a willowy, elegant figure on the podium, with his flowing greying mane; audience and orchestral members alike warmly received him. Hopefully he will soon return to the Tonhalle but please not with a concerto for cuckoo clocks – maybe Gerard Hoffnung’s Grand, Grand Overture incorporating vacuum cleaners? No, on second thoughts, the Swiss may be happy, but they are not humorous.

John Rhodes

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