Restrained Gabetta, Unrestrained Urbański at Zurich’s Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  Elgar, Shostakovich   Tonhalle Orchestra, Krzysztof Urbanski (conductor), Sol Gabetta (cello), Tonhalle Zurich 25.2.16 (JR)

Krzysztof Urbański (copyright Fred Jonny)
Krzysztof Urbański (copyright Fred Jonny)

Elgar – Cello Concerto

Shostakovich – Symphony No. 10


Sol Gabetta, the Argentinean cellist born to Franco-Russian parents, recorded the Elgar Concerto a few years ago with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra (under Mario Venzago), to solid acclaim.  She was busy signing copies in the interval. She appears regularly in Switzerland; she teaches in Basle. It’s always heartwarming for the many British in the Zurich area to hear Elgar at the Tonhalle. Many however will have grown up with the sound and sight of Jacqueline du Pré giving her all to the work; Gabetta’s was no such performance. “Inhibited” was the word I heard at the interval, and “not enough breadth”. Gabetta is still young, she is a winner of the “Credit Suisse Young Artist Award”, and a few years ago the “Gramophone Young Artist of the Year Award”. Two years ago she made her debut with Simon Rattle and the Berliners.

Sol Gabetta (copyright Uwe Arens),
Sol Gabetta (copyright Uwe Arens),

Gabetta looked stunning in a backless frilly cream gown, but seemed reluctant to plumb the emotional depths of this work, particularly in the first movement. Elgar was writing the work, from his Sussex home, in 1917 and weary of the horrors of the War. His wife was also seriously ill. This work needs to tug at the heartstrings, not just be competently played. One could argue this was a deliberately restrained performance without histrionics, but I’m not convinced. Admittedly, by the end of the concert, her performance had anyhow been blown away by a shattering performance of the Shostakovich symphony.

Gabetta did relax as the work progressed.  There was never any doubting her technical ability, there was some extremely fleet finger-work in the central Allegro Molto, and a most touching sense of melancholy in the Finale. The Tonhalle Orchestra accompanied nobly and Urbański kept the orchestra under control.

Gabetta found a fitting and affecting encore which did not break the sombre mood, “El Cant del Ocells” (The Song of the Birds), a traditional Catalan Christmas song and lullaby, arranged by Pablo Casals. It was accompanied by the cellists of the orchestra.

Krzysztof Urbański disappointingly had to cancel a concert with the Tonhalle last year but evidently promised to return. Tall, young and handsome, with an unruly mop of fair hair, dapper in unconventional (for an evening performance) suit with white shirt and black tie, he conducted with elegant and crisp gestures, often on tiptoe, balletic in style, often as though dancing on hot coals. This became distracting when twitching or jerking grotesquely, seemingly uncontrollably, from the knees – but he got the results he wanted and the orchestra appeared to be impressed by him. Certainly the Shostakovich, which he conducted without a score, was right up his street.

Urbański, with his exaggerated movements, is not a conductor I could easily live with as a Principal Conductor – though whether he would be equally flamboyant in more classical repertoire I do not know – but he makes for an entertaining Guest conductor and I suspect the youngsters will admire him; he is already described as a “Pultstar”, a star on the podium. He extracted, in the second movement, wild energy from the usually more refined Tonhalle Orchestra and coaxed some stunning woodwind from the players (I mention, in particular, Felix-Andreas Genner (clarinet), Isaac Duarte (oboe), Matthias Racz (bassoon) and Matvey Demin (flute)) but all deserve praise for tackling this difficult score. The pizzicato strings in the third movement were most menacing. No holds were barred for the percussion section, the conductor clearly wanting them loud. This was the symphony Shostakovich wrote upon hearing of Stalin’s death and surely has the memory of Stalin written all over it. Shostakovich, criticized by Stalin for his angular, discordant 4th and irreverent 9th symphonies, and his strident opera “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” was finally free of his musical shackles. (I am currently reading, by the way, and can highly recommend to lovers of Shostakovich’s music, Julian Barnes’ recent novel “The Noise of Time”, a fictionalized account of how Shostakovich survived Stalin).

The symphony ends with the “initials” D-S-C-H hammered out by the timpani, as if to say “I’m free and can now make the music I want to write, not what I have been told to write”. The roars of approval soon began for conductor and orchestra. I last heard this symphony with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony at the Lucerne Festival, which was magnificent. This was a more threatening, grotesque performance but equally effective. Shostakovich is not the usual Tonhalle Orchestra territory, but on this showing it ought to return to their repertoire – soon, please, and by all means with the quirky Urbański on the podium.

John Rhodes

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