Dutoit, Fischer and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich all on Top Form

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bartók, Tchaikovsky: Tonhalle Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Julia Fischer (violin) Tonhalle, Zurich 23.2.2017. (JR)

Bartók – Violin Concerto No.2
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4

Bartók started thinking about composing a violin concerto in 1936 when he was staying at the Swiss mountain resort of Braunwald. It took him a while to compose, first discussing technical points with the work’s dedicatee Zoltan Székely, and then Bartók’s attention became diverted by the disturbing Fascist happenings at that time. Bartók was extremely pessimistic about his and Europe’s future and within a few years, he had emigrated to the United States. During the composer’s life, the second concerto was known simply as his Violin Concerto. His other violin concerto (number 1) was written in the years 1907–1908, but only published in 1956, after the composer’s death.

The (second) concerto prefers folk elements to actual folk tunes; it is full of interest, fascinating orchestral colours but short on whole melodies. It is audibly Bartókian with Hungarian flavour. The concerto provides plenty of technical difficulty, but Julia Fischer, artist-in-residence at the Tonhalle not so long ago, surmounted them with consummate ease and made the complex work (almost) easy listening. She played the work with a maturity well beyond her 33 years. It was a veritable tour de force and held the audience’s attention throughout, particularly in the first movement’s cadenza. How refreshing not to have any of the “usual” violin concertos, not needing to mention any names, in a first half.

Dutoit, looking very good for his eighty years, swayed almost balletically to enhance the dance-like effects of the score. Sharp-eyed concertgoers might have noticed that one of the percussionists used the tip of a hunting knife to gently tap the triangle and cymbal, adding a unusually metallic sound to the orchestral colouration.

At the end of the concerto, Dutoit still on the podium, towering over Fischer, kissed her affectionately and touchingly on the forehead. Fischer’s encore, a Bach Sarabande, was soothing balm after the more acerbic Bartók.

Tchaikovsky’s work on his Fourth Symphony coincided with a divorce from his wife after a short-lived and disastrous marriage and the introduction to his patron Nadehzda von Meck who supported him at this difficult time, both in musical and emotional matters.

Although the central theme of the symphony is based on the “fate” theme introduced at volume and right at the outset by the horn section, the symphony is enjoyable to hear and no doubt to play; there is a sense of caprice. Tchaikovsky’s overriding popularity endures for good reason. Dutoit was in total control, his decades of experience shining through in every bar. No holds were barred, the full force of the brass unleashed but never brash; Dutoit did not allow the opening movement to gallop away and reserved the faster tempi for the exciting Finale.

It would be invidious to pick out principals for their sterling contributions; this was a team effort, and the conductor was very much a significant part of the team.

We had all had a lot of fun; there were smiles all round in the orchestra as they took their bows (and during the music the string sections in the pizzicato movement). The audience roared their delight, not a “given” in restrained Zurich. The fine acoustics of the relatively small hall added to the palpable thrill of the evening.

John Rhodes

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