Welser-Möst Sensational in the ‘Alpine Symphony’

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Messaien, R. Strauss:   Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Franz Welser-Möst (conductor), Zürich Tonhalle, Zurich   11.3.16. (JR)

Messaien, “Chronochromie”

Strauss: “Alpine Symphony”

Franz Welser-Möst is no stranger to Zurich and a very welcome guest. He was the Music Director at the opera here for eight years and has conducted the local Tonhalle Orchestra on and off over the last 20 years, first in a programme with Rossini, de Falla and Brahms, a few years ago with Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony and then a couple of years ago at a surprise farewell concert for the outgoing David Zinman, with Johann Strauss, Mozart and Ravel. I recall Welser-Möst’s uncomfortable years in the early 90s with the London Philharmonic when he came under a barrage of criticism from players and critics alike, but he weathered that storm to become one of the most established and generally appreciated conductors, moving from the Zurich Opera to the Cleveland Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera. On the strength of his sensation “Alpine” at this concert, it was easy to see why he has progressed to such heights, even though he may be somewhat short of charisma (one critic some years ago likened his coming on stage as that resembling the orchestra’s librarian). Reports from orchestra members of rehearsals for this concert however were enthusiastic in their praise and recognition of his musicianship.

First though we were delivered some Messaien. In a short speech before the work began, Welser-Möst, in his gentle, lilting Austrian dialect, told the audience that the piece was written by Messaien, some 60 years ago, and the rhythmic material is “coloured” with dense harmonies in different permutations. Another colouring is the birdsong (Messaien was a keen ornithologist), which comes to the fore in the penultimate movement and played by eighteen solo string players, sounding rather like an exotic jungle. In another movement the birdsong is played by xylophone and marimba – the percussion players more than earned their keep and gained their own ovation at the end of the piece. At the Paris première, a senior critic likened the reception to that of The Rite of Spring some 50 years earlier. Even today, the piece is not easy to fathom; I rather tired of the piece and yearned for the joyous melodies and rhythms of Messaien’s spectacular “Turangalila Symphony”. It’s easy to see why “Chronochromie” is rarely played, not just because it needs a vast orchestra. I suspect the piece even managed to depress Box Office takings, there were many empty seats.

The huge orchestra was in place again after the interval, with added wind machines, organ console, quadruple brass and woodwind, for Richard Strauss’ mighty tone poem “Eine Alpensinfonie”. Strauss too was keen on the outdoors and even managed to incorporate some birdsong into his piece. He was particularly keen on mountain trekking and the work took shape after an arduous five-hour climb and treacherous three-hour descent of the “Heimgarten” mountain in the Bavarian Alps. (Zurich’s Tonhalle, incidentally, must be one of the few concert halls from which, on a clear day, one can easily see the majestic snow-capped Alps – the KKL in Lucerne is another- and the main railway station is full, most mornings, of locals in mountain boots). I last heard the “Alpine” under David Zinman who chose to accompany the work with visual images of mountains. This time, Welser-Möst chose to omit visual distractions (though there were some cameras present to record the performance for Swiss Television).

This was a life-affirming performance of this great work, each change of weather on the mountain was beautifully depicted, the storm was dramatic and visceral, the ending beautifully contemplative. There were fine contributions from principal oboe and horn, and the percussion section and organ had fun conjuring up the lightning, thunder and wind. Welser-Möst, arms flailing, gave the brass fairly free rein to fill the hall with sound. The mountain, and the audience judging by the roars for the conductor, had been well and truly conquered.

John Rhodes

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