Two Joyous Works Make Perfect Zurich Festival Fare

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Dvorak, Mahler: Tonhalle Orchestra, Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Lisa Batiashvili (violin), Tonhalle, Zurich 17.6.16 (JR)

Dvorak: Violin Concerto
Mahler: Symphony No. 1

This was the opening concert of the Zurich Festival and made perfect festival fare.

Guided, or rather misguided, by the season’s programme, I was expecting to hear Bernstein’s “Candide” Overture followed by two short Dvorak pieces for violin, a Romance and a Mazurka, but the first half had been changed for some unknown reason to Dvorak’s more substantial Violin Concerto. The soloist happily remained Lisa Batiashvili. In this full-blooded performance, one could easily hear that, just a year before composing the concerto, Dvorak had completed his first set of Slavonic Dances, as his trade-mark folksy dance rhythms infuse this infectious and joyous work. Written for and revised by Joseph Joachim (although he actually turned down playing it at the work’s première), it contains much to test the skills of the soloist; it was easy for a violinist of Batiashvili’s calibre to negotiate the work’s intricacies – she looked cool and calm throughout. Fast finger-work and secure double-stops impressed, as did the gorgeous tone of her instrument, a 1739 Guarneri del Gésu. Batiashvili brought grace and charm to the slow movement. Bringuier accompanied boisterously and sensitively in turn, as needed, and brought the work to its exciting close. As an encore, a transcription for solo violin and string orchestra of the wistful cor anglais melody from the New World Symphony which had all the expat Brits in the audience visualising Sheep Street in Sherborne, the Middle Age backdrop for the “Hovis” television advert which used the tune to evoke home comforts and old-fashioned values. I have to say I prefer the tune played by the plaintive and mellow instrument that Dvorak had carefully selected for the task.

This year’s Zurich Festrival has “Dada” as its over-arching theme, as the Dada art movement was founded, exactly 100 years ago, in Zurich. The Kunsthaus features a large exhibition dedicated to Dadaism and the Tonhalle borrowed a short film for the occasion, “Entr’acte” (made in 1924 by René Clair), set to music by Eric Satie, which was shown in the interval in the main Foyer. It depicts a man who is shot and then placed in a coffin. His funeral cortège is pulled by a camel but the hearse becomes detached from the camel and starts on a journey of its own (even managing to have a ride on a helter-skelter). It becomes ever faster with the mourners chasing after it, Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sprang to mind. Eventually it crashes into a ditch and out of the coffin steps the “deceased” who then proceeds to wave his magic wand to make the mourners vanish, one by one.  The evening’s concert programme reproduced part of a concert programme from a Hamburg performance of Mahler’s First Symphony in 1893 claiming that the “Frère Jacques” slow movement was probably inspired by a picture (well known in Austria from a childrens’ book) showing woodland animals carrying the coffin of a hunter, the animals ironically carrying flags and playing musical instruments.

Mahler’s First Symphony (the “Titan”) does not exactly play itself but it’s a hard work to fail in the concert hall. This was, I believe, Bringuier’s first foray into Mahler, certainly with the Tonhalle Orchestra, after hearing every Mahler symphony under David Zinman and one feared this might be a hard act to follow; but we needed to have no such fears. Bringuier showed he was well up to the task, if not yet at Zinman’s exalted standard, and one hopes this fine performance will give him confidence to continue exploring Mahler’s works in the coming years.

The opening movement, starting with its woodwind bird-calls, was atmospheric, then Bringuier gradually and skilfully built up the climax to the work’s first brass peroration. The Scherzo (“kräftig, bewegt”) was suitably powerful, perhaps a shade too loud, its trio graceful. “Frère Jacques” on solo double-bass was solidly dispatched by principal Ronald Dangel and the beautiful central section brought to mind Mahler’s “Adagietto” from his Fifth Symphony. Bringuier’s way with orchestral colour, evident whenever he conducts his native French music, assisted him in all the quieter sections of the work. Into the final straight we plunged with a crash, a bang and a wallop from timpani, cymbals and bass drum. “Stürmisch bewegt” anticipated the evening’s real thunderstorm about to unfold outside the hall. This is a work which gave all sections of the orchestra their chance to shine, often in pairs: Sabine Poyé Morel and Matvey Denim (flutes), Simon Fuchs and Kaspar Zimmermann (oboes), Christian Harrtmann and Benjamin Forster (timpani), Andreas Janke and Klaidi Sahatci (First violins) and all seven horns who stood, as usual, for the final bars.

This was a road test for the Mahler, which – after a few minor ensemble glitches have been ironed out and the volume tempered – will go on tour with the orchestra and conductor in the autumn to South America, so if you happen to be reading this in Brazil, Uruguay or Argentina, here are the dates of their Mahler concerts in those countries:

Buenos Aires – 11.10.16
Montevideo – 13.10.16
Rio de Janeiro – 15.10.16
Sao Paolo – 18.10.16

There are two additional concerts, in Buenos Aires and in Sao Paolo, featuring Shostakovich’s Sixth Symphony.

The orchestra will repeat the Mahler in Zurich on 5th and 6th October. It will be well worth hearing again.

John Rhodes

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