John Eliot Gardiner’s Fine Zurich Debut with the Tonhalle Orchestra

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Janáček & Dvořák: Tonhalle Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Monteverdi Choir, Luba Orgonášová (soprano), Alisa Kolosova (alto), Pavel Černoch (tenor), Peter Mikulas (bass), Peter Solomon (organ), Tonhalle Zurich 5.12.15. (JR)

Janáček – “Blanik Ballad”

Dvořák – “The golden spinning wheel”

Janáček – “Glagolitic Mass”

Surprisingly, this was Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s debut with the Tonhalle Orchestra; it was a resounding success. Now over 70, he still cuts a tall, elegant figure and his celebrity drew a capacity crowd.

Gardiner’s choice of music, all Czech, for this concert was, however, not what one might have expected, given the repertoire he is renowned for over the last decades. It was however most welcome. The evening commenced with a piece of virtually unknown Janáček, his “Blanik Ballad”, written to celebrate the creation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. The piece is a mere nine minutes long, rather disjointed, although enticingly one hears snippets of Jenufa, Cunning Little Vixen and the Glagolitic Mass. It made for a pleasant curtain raiser.

The main work of the first half was Dvořák’s tone poem “The Golden Spinning Wheel” which, together with his other tone poems (“The Noonday Witch”, “The Wood Dove”, and “The Water Goblin”), are all based on disturbing themes and rarely performed. The story goes like this: A king rides into the forest and meets a young woman with whom, of course, he falls instantly in love. He asks his stepmother and presumably ugly stepsister to bring the young woman back to his castle, so that he can marry her. The stepsister naturally has other ideas and hacks the woman to death. A magician appears and takes revenge on the stepsister by restoring the young woman to her complete and former self with the aid of a golden spinning wheel, the stepsister losing limbs in the process. The critic Eduard Hanslick described the story as disgusting but was a fan of Dvořák’s (conservative) music. The work has some gusto, especially when it reminds one of various Slavonic Dances, but the central passage is rather bitty – though I was told by one of the orchestra’s oboists after the performance that it’s fun to play. There are, I will admit, beautiful passages for cor anglais, the pair of oboes and the trombones. The ending is rather strange, a rousing brass climax is cut oddly short. The Tonhalle Orchestra’s playing was a mite ragged, indicating insufficient rehearsal time, with most time probably having gone to the Glagolitic Mass.

There can be no argument about the quality of Janáček’s “Glagolitic Mass”, which certainly packs a punch. The chief glory of the performance was undoubtedly the singing of the Monteverdi Choir, celebrating their 50th anniversary, they made a truly wondrous and harmonious sound. Another glory was also the Czech soprano soloist, Luba Orgonášová, now a Professor of Singing at Zurich’s reputed High School of Arts – Orgonášová sang the same part recently for Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic, which says it all. Her high notes were spot on, diction perfect, as you would expect.

Of the other soloists, Czech tenor Pavel Černoch stood out for his expert grasp of Janáček’s colours and phrasing – unsurprising given he was born in Brno and studied there at the Janáček Academy. Sadly, in the “Gloria” his voice did not carry to my seat at the back of the hall over the full orchestra and full-throated choir. He came into his own however in the later Credo (following haunting chants of “Veruju” (Credo) from the choir) and in the Sanctus.

The alto in this piece has very little to sing, Russian Alisa Kolosova went almost unnoticed. The bass Peter Miklas was both effective and resonant.

Peter Solomon expertly blew the cobwebs out of the Tonhalle organ in his solo movement, a real and very welcome coup de théâtre. Concluding the work came a thrilling Intrada with its glorious and impressive brass climax.

Sir John was the guiding hand throughout the concert, self-effacing, the consummate musician, showing off the best in all the pieces. Hopefully he will be asked to return – soon.

John Rhodes

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