Honeck’s Impressive Debut with the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Salonen, Szymanowski, R. Strauss   Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Manfred Honeck (conductor), Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Tonhalle, Zurich   3.7.15 (JR)

Salonen:  “Nyx” for orchestra
Szymanowski:  Violin Concerto No. 1
Strauss:  “Ein Heldenleben

This fine concert brought the Tonhalle Orchestra season to a close and it proved to be somewhat of a highlight.

By way of overture, the orchestra performed the Swiss première of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s short orchestral piece “Nyx” written in 2011. Salonen is the orchestra’s current Creative Chair and this season’s concerts have featured many of his works. “Nix” in German dialect means “nothing” (“nichts” in High German), not the most fortunate choice of a name in German-speaking countries; and indeed the work turned out to be rather insubstantial. It transpires that Nyx is the ancient Greek Goddess of the Night giving the composer free rein to bring in the shadowy sounds of the night whilst changing textures and moods. I failed to find the piece satisfying though it was, like all Salonen, easy on the ear and tonal. It brought to mind Finnish wide-open spaces and the sea; it was quite impressive when loud (there was a very full battery of percussion) and charming when soft, but without any hint of melody I soon tired of it: in the end it was unmemorable and over-elaborate.

Szymanowski’s violin concerto, on the other hand, was full of interest and delight. His music does not get played too often, using Honeck’s words (in an after-concert talk) “it doesn’t sell that well”. It bore a number of similarities to the Salonen, surprising considering they were written nearly 100 years apart. It too is a rhapsodic work, full of technical difficulty, which Christian Tetzlaff (using a score) completely mastered (much of the work is in the uppermost reaches of the E string). It may be short of tunes, but it is ultimately satisfying with a variety of discernible moods and textures during its one four-sectioned movement. At times one could discern reflections on the horrors of the First World War; the piece was written in 1922 when Szymanowski, coming from an aristocratic family, had to flee Ukraine from the Red Army and settle in Poland. This brought with it financial hardship. The piece also had many passages of lyric beauty; Tetzlaff, playing not on a Stradivarius but a modern equivalent made by Stefan-Peter Greiner, swayed and almost genuflected most affectingly, though his occasional stamping brought Nigel Kennedy to mind.

Honeck’s presence on stage (and to some degree even his looks) reminded me of Carlos Kleiber, and, sure enough, he admitted in his talk that he had adopted the Kleiber technique of conducting. It was always elegant, with his left arm flailing like a windmill to keep the flow. The orchestra occasionally had difficulty following his down beat.

Honeck has conducted “Heldenleben” some 40 times and clearly knows it inside out. He knew, for instance, that a series of four notes in the brass, repeated, in the section where Richard Strauss snarls back at his critics, are to spell out the name “Eduard Hanslick”. His rehearsals were apparently most detailed; the end result was exceptional.

“Heldenleben” may have its faults but it’s my favourite of Strauss tone poems. The opening heroic theme thrills on every occurrence and tears can come to the eyes during the solo violin part, here played immaculately by leader Klaidi Sahatci. A highlight is always the brass and percussion onslaught in the battle scene and was duly martially dispatched. Special mention must also go to Mike Reid (clarinet) and Mischa Greull (horn) and the smiling bank of oboists. Honeck extracted recording quality playing from the whole of the orchestra.

This was Honeck’s debut with the orchestra although he is no stranger to Zurich. He was Kapellmeister at the opera here between 1991 and 1996. Now Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, he was asked, after the concert, what he thought of the Tonhalle Orchestra sound, compared with that of the Pittsburghers. He praised the Tonhalle’s finesse and intonation, adding that the Pittsburgh Symphony had a “brilliant” sound. It has to be said that the Pittsburghers have to contend with a much larger hall, the 2,700 seat Heinz Hall, whereas the Tonhalle is half that size.

Honeck employed antiphonal strings, double basses on the left, celli squashed somewhere in the middle (which sadly made them rather invisible), second violins on the right (facing away from the audience), horns on the right. I found it disconcerting and, in this work, brought no audible musical improvement over traditional seating.

Hopefully Honeck will come back to the Tonhalle some time. As a devout Catholic, and being Austrian (living right next to the eastern Swiss border) might one pray for some Bruckner?

John Rhodes


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