Switzerland Bruckner Alumni Orchestra Zurich, Johannes Schaefli (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich 6.6.15 (JR)
Bruckner: Symphony No. 8
Any opportunity to hear a local performance of Bruckner’s majestic Eighth Symphony should be seized with both hands. Many Bruckner-lovers consider this his finest symphony, combining the power of the Fourth and the rhythm of the many of his earlier works – it is cogent throughout, does not meander or bore, has energy pulsing through its veins in all four movements and, in the right hands, can be simply glorious. It’s certainly my favourite of his symphonies.
The Alumni Sinfonieorchester Zurich was formed just over ten years ago and, to its credit, does not go for easy works. It is aimed principally at taking on former members of the Academic Orchestra (and Chamber Orchestra) Zurich (and other volunteers with an academic background or degree) and targets the alumni, employees and teaching staff of the Eidgenössisches Technische Hochschule (or ETH as it is known for short); ETH Zurich is one of the world’s leading universities for technology and the natural sciences with more than 18,500 students from over 110 different countries, including 4,000 doctoral students. It’s on a par with MIT and Imperial College in London. I doubt, therefore, whether there are many orchestras around with a higher academic level. Their orchestral trainer and conductor is Johannes Schaefli who is also Principal Conductor of the Palatinate Chamber Orchestra in Mannheim and Professor of Orchestral Conducting at Zurich’s High School of Arts. He is clearly a fan of the late Romantic repertoire judging by the works he has selected for the orchestra since its inception, including Bruckner 3 and 7, Dvorak 7 and 9, Tchaikovsky 4, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and Tod und Verklärung, Sibelius 1, Beethoven 9, Shostakovich 5 and Verdi’s Requiem.
Schaefli’s reading of the Bruckner symphony was exemplary – no pulling about of the tempi, no sudden gear changes and tempi just as the composer prescribed – and the result was most satisfying. Schaefli hardly looked at the score, he knew the music inside out and could concentrate on ensuring clean entries. He very much had the structure of the work in his grasp. On occasion I closed my eyes to revel in the piece and forgot I was not listening to the Tonhalle Orchestra, the hall’s usual residents. These amateur players had, of course, been rehearsing this work for many months, a luxury most professional orchestras cannot afford.
Schaefli built up the climaxes in each movement with skill; volume was never a problem, except for the percussionists (who attract sympathy for having to sit through the entire the work for two clashes – in the slow movement – of the cymbal and a tinkle on the triangle) who covered their ears with their hands whenever the horns piled on the decibels – earplugs would have been less obvious.
After a rhythmic first movement, the Scherzo fairly bounded along with thrilling brass outbursts. The strings had their chance to shine in the Adagio, which never dragged; the violins may have lacked bloom but they worked hard right to the very back desks: there was no lack of enthusiasm or technical ability. The orchestra clearly loves to play and that came over in the performance. The cello section, in particular, impressed, as did the principal horn.
The Finale showed off the rhythmic talents of the timpanist who had a whale of a time. The sultry evening caused his timps to go flat, and he sometimes didn’t notice in time.
The horns had their off moments with split notes, to be expected, but they were magnificent in the closing pages.
Some in the audience confessed to me they had never been to the Tonhalle, never perhaps heard a classical concert, so Bruckner was probably not the easiest of starters. They had come to support family members, employees, employers and friends. Hopefully some will have been converted to attend other concerts.
This was a fine performance of a wonderful work: it does not always have to be the Berlin Philharmonic!
A pity that the hall was not fuller, this impressive orchestra deserves a far larger audience. And if I played my violin better than I do (or rather, did) I would join them like a shot.