Czech Composers, Czech Conductor at the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Janáček, Martinů, Beethoven: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Antoine Tamestit (viola), Tomas Netopil (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich   22.10.15 (JR)

Janáček: Taras Bulba, Rhapsody for Orchestra

Martinů: Rhapsody-Concerto for Viola and Orchestra

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5

This concert was to have been conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada giving his debut at the Tonhalle; he was indisposed and in sprang Czech conductor Tomas Netopil, not a name I admit I knew. He is General Music Director at the Aalto Theatre/Philharmonie in Essen (where he will soon be conducting Martinů’s Greek Passion, Elektra and Rusalka) and at the National Theatre of Prague so the works of Janáček and Martinů should be very much in his blood.

And so it turned out. The Tonhalle had managed to find, at short notice, an absolutely perfect replacement conductor who, unusually, did not even want (or need to) change any of the three works in the original programme. I was however surprised to see so many empty seats at the back of the hall – had the mere mention of Janáček and Martinů really put people off?

Janáček’s Taras Bulba is one of his early but quintessential compositions, his first significant orchestral work, all the hallmarks of Janáček’s sound world with its wonderful folk melodies and harmonies are already in place: echoes of Jenůfa and Cunning Little Vixen abound.

The work depicts, in almost graphic detail, the violent story of Taras Bulba from one of Gogol’s most famous literary works. It tells the story of old Taras Bulba, a Cossack in sixteenth-century Ukraine, and his two sons, and how all three meet their gory deaths.

The orchestra was on top form, with ear-catching contributions from the first concertmaster (Klaidi Sahatci), cor anglais (Martin Frutiger), organ (Peter Solomon), oboe (Isaac Duarte), trombones and thrilling horns – Nepotil hardly needed to look at the score, he knew it like the back of his hand. In the second movement the strings and clarinet had their chance to shine and in the last movement the percussion section had fun with timps and bells. It was all most enjoyable.

Martinů’s Rhapsody-Concerto has become one of the most performed viola concertos of the twentieth century and for good reason: it combines a challenging and attractive role for the soloist with a lyrical (and at times dramatic) orchestral accompaniment.  Tamestit, playing a 1672 Stradivarius, made his lines sing – we heard the excellence of his instrument from his opening notes; his double-stopping was most impressive.   Nepotil drew warmth and power from the Tonhalle Orchestra: this was a fine performance of an engaging work. Tamestit proceeded to thrill the audience with a spectacular encore which had everyone guessing – Schnittke or Ligeti perhaps, judging by Tamestit’s recent recordings.

To say that Nepotil looked entirely at home in the concert’s first half would be an understatement. However, his task in the Beethoven was somewhat harder, to try to find some new aspects of a work where virtually everyone in the audience knew every note. It was a very good performance; the orchestra gave their all even if I could not detect any really new insights. Nepotil did bring out some nuances and highlight some sections which I had missed on earlier hearings. The opening was taken at breakneck speed, nigh perfect central movements and the Finale was joyful and brimful of energy.

The Tonhalle will hopefully invite Nepotil back soon, perhaps for more Czech music; and Orozco-Estrada will also hopefully return next season, with a new programme, so we can hear what we missed.

John Rhodes

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