Glorious Bruckner Seventh from Dohnányi and the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mozart, Bruckner:  Tonhalle Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor), Rudolf Buchbinder (piano), Tonhalle, Zurich    10.5.2015    (JR)

Mozart:        Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor KV466
Bruckner:     Symphony No. 7

Starting a concert at 5 p.m. on a Sunday in May was always going to be a box office gamble which unfortunately, given the hot, sunny weather, failed to pay off: the punters stayed away in droves. What is without doubt a good idea in dismal November or dreary January can be a dangerous one in mid-May. The parks along the lakeside were thronging with people, the sailing boats were bobbing in front of the towering and still snowy Alpine backdrop, the sky and lake were deep blue – and the Stalls were sadly empty.  Friends thought I must be quite mad to go to a concert in such wonderful weather; I did, however, not regret my decision – because this proved to be my most enjoyable concert this year so far.

Normally the thought of yet another Mozart piano concerto (why do they precede Bruckner symphonies de rigueur?) would not send shivers down my spine, but this orthodox rendition of No. 20 in D minor was simply masterful. Rudolf Buchbinder is perhaps better known as a Beethoven specialist than a Mozartian but he brought stature and composure to the performance and, of course, a complete lack of razzmatazz. The opening Allegro was crisply articulated, conservative in the finest sense, unhurried whilst never too slow. The most interesting invention in the movement turned out not to be Mozart’s but Beethoven’s, his quite short but meaty cadenza written in 1809. This concerto was considered of a heavier stature than its more than 20 siblings and became standard repertoire for the likes of Mendelssohn, Brahms and Beethoven – all three wrote cadenzas for both the first and the last movements.

Buchbinder’s playing of the slow movement, the Romance, was unfussy but never bordered on the dull. The Rondo to end the work was playful with flashes of humour, aided and abetted by a sympathetic conductor. It was good to hear the work in the hands of two masterly elder statesmen of the musical world.

Dohnanyi, now an amazing 85 and still conducting with full vigour, brought decades of experience to his authoritative reading of Bruckner’s mighty Seventh Symphony. We knew what to expect when the cellos launched into their gorgeous, flowing melody right at the outset – the orchestra played magnificently (though not entirely flawlessly) throughout. Dohnanyi handled both tempo and dynamic changes to perfection. To end the first movement, the timpani rolled – to watch Benjamin Forster was mesmeric.

The great brass perorations in the moving Adagio were a worthy tribute to Richard Wagner, news of whose death reached Vienna as Bruckner was composing this movement. He duly added four Wagner tubas. The cymbal clash (and triangle) towards the end of the movement was the thrilling climax it should be and seemed completely in place – Bruckner’s friends the Schalk brothers urged him to add it and Bruckner resisted the addition for some time. I did feel sorry for the two percussionists who have to sit through the entire symphony for their brief moment of glory.

The Scherzo fairly bounced along, the central Trio allowing the orchestra a well-earned breather. The brass outbursts in the Finale were almost deafening, even at the very back of the hall, bringing the work to its exhilarating ending. At 62 minutes, the reading had been swift; it never once palled.

Interestingly Dohnanyi first conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra nearly 40 years ago; then the programme was Schoenberg, Mozart (his Oboe Concerto with Heinz Holliger) and Bruckner.

The bravos rang out for the maestro on each of his many re-appearances and the members of the orchestra applauded him enthusiastically; the orchestra knew that, together, they had delivered a glorious performance of a glorious symphony.

John Rhodes


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