Switzerland Schubert, Bartók: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, Pablo Heras-Casado (conductor), Tonhalle Zurich, 12.1.2017. (JR)
Schubert – Symphony No. 3
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra
I was looking forward to Dohnányi’s Schubert Ninth (preceded by Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta) but it was not to be; Dohnányi (now 87) was indisposed. This gave the Tonhalle Orchestra, who are searching for a successor to the outgoing Lionel Bringuier, a golden opportunity to call upon a potential replacement in the form of young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.
Heras-Casado abandoned Dohnányi’s chosen programme and brought two of his favourite works. We started with Schubert’s Third Symphony, written when Schubert was 18 and composed over just a few weeks. Sadly, he never heard it performed – in fact its first performance (and that only in part) was 30 years after his death. It is light-hearted fare, Sunday morning music on Radio 3, full of catchy tunes and, for a youthful symphony, surprisingly well known. Even Eduard Hanslick, the acerbic critic, admired it, especially the final movement. Heras-Casado, beaming throughout, did not need a score and the orchestra dutifully followed his every gesture. Heras-Casado injected the piece with infectious humour and conducted with verve. The Allegretto was charming and the final Presto Vivace (a lively Tarantella giving the symphony the nickname “Italian”) concluded the work in thrilling fashion.
After the interval, we were treated to one of Bartók’s greatest works, his Concerto for Orchestra. The orchestra had played it less than a year ago under Bringuier, so there was no dust to brush off their parts. I cannot say the performance was better or worse than Bringuier’s, it was equally fine, but perhaps more detailed – though I suspect Bringuier may have had more rehearsal time (there were a few rough edges this time round). The brass and woodwind principals clearly enjoyed their limelight in the “Game of the couples”. The wistful Elegia reminded us that this work by written by Bartók in American exile, in 1943, but otherwise the work is playful and full of intriguing (mild) dissonance. After the witty scherzo-like fourth movement followed the Finale which gave Heras-Casado the chance to show off some of his Iberian passion. His fiery temperament blends with an amiable countenance, sound technique, a broad repertoire and plenty of charisma – could this be the perfect mix to ignite staid Zurichers?
The tell-tale sign was that a number of orchestra players, who were not playing on stage, were spotted in the auditorium. I also, from my seat behind the orchestra, watched the faces of the players during the performance and they seemed very well pleased. Heras-Casado has conducted the Tonhalle Orchestra before. In 2011, he conducted their opening concert and returned a year later with Mozart and Bach. In 2012, he accompanied Sol Gabetta in Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto and performed a Firebird. At this moment, he is not Chief Conductor of any orchestra, as far as I can tell, though he guests with many top-flight orchestras (this season with the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra). My money has now switched from Sanderling.
All eyes may jealously be on the sparkling Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg; London music-lovers salivate about the new possibility of reviving the plans for a new concert hall for the London Symphony Orchestra close to the Barbican. Zurich concert-goers, on the other hand, chatter only about who might be taking their orchestra forward to new heights.