Zinman Returns (briefly) to the Tonhalle with Grandiose Bruckner

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mozart, Bruckner: Tonhalle Orchestra / David Zinman (conductor), Radu Lupu (piano), Tonhalle Zurich 2.6.16. (JR)

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 24

Bruckner – Symphony No. 5

“The Matador Returns” heralded the chief music critic of one of the most highly-regarded Zurich newspapers, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), simultaneously casting mild aspersions on the current incumbent Music Director at the Tonhalle, Lionel Bringuier, and welcoming back the orchestra’s former boss, David Zinman, now their Honorary Conductor. Bringuier, outside of French music, is generally considered still to have to prove his worth (and to some extent learn his trade), but Zinman is very much a known quantity and quality, so the comparison is somewhat unfair. The NZZ urges Bringuier to play a more conspicuous part in Zurich’s cultural life – and learn more German.

Radu Lupu shuffled leisurely onto the stage, with the more diminutive Zinman in his shadow (Zinman needs a double height podium). Radu Lupu then sat at the piano, leaned back and folded his arms. Lupu’s repertoire has always been limited to a very small number of composers (principally Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms), and his readings are duly conservative and exemplary. It’s as though a benevolent elderly uncle has come to tea and sits down at the sitting room piano to entertain family and friends. He looks totally relaxed, and that infuses his wise yet occasionally playful interpretation; nothing looked like any effort, the easy-going style immediately won over the audience. There are of course no histrionics whatsoever, even though his looks still indicate some residual Romanian wildness. Zinman’s accompaniment was both dutiful and expert: the woodwind (clarinets and bassoons standing out particularly) were particularly ravishing in their short interludes invoking the music of the Austrian Alps.

The highlight of the evening, however, was without a doubt the Bruckner. Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony is less popular and less often played than some other of his symphonies, his Fourth, Seventh Eighth and the unfinished Ninth, but considered by many as a great masterpiece, “pure” Bruckner without any discernible external influences, particularly the fine slow movement and the sublime final movement, a master-work of counterpoint.

Zinman neither rushed through the work nor dallied, the performance came out at a very usual 81 minutes; a seasoned Brucknerian friend, who had travelled from Germany for this concert and who has heard the work under Karajan, Wand, Haitink, Abbado (to name but a few), described the conducting afterwards as simply perfect. From the very opening beautiful pizzicato strings, we knew we were going to be in for a treat. In the slow and gorgeous Adagio the strings were silken, Zinman always allowing the music to take its natural line and breathe. The orchestra watched his every gesture and that paid marvellous and revelatory dividends. Zinman looked very happy to be back amongst his friends (in both orchestra and audience) and beamed between movements; the warmth of his reception infused the polished performance. After the magnificent final movement, there was an audible sigh from the audience before the ecstatic applause erupted.  A standing ovation from the sold-out hall was almost instant. “Bringuier, take note, take care” murmured the NZZ.

Bringuier’s opportunity to reply will come soon enough. The Zurich Arts Festival now starts (with a third performance of the Bruckner 5 under Zinman), Bringuier responds with two heavy-weight concerts, one with Mahler’s First Symphony and the other Brahms Second Piano Concerto with Hélène Grimaud. Expectations run high; Bringuier will not disappoint.

John Rhodes