Zinman Welcomed Back to the Tonhalle for Stirring Mahler Sixth

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mahler: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman (conductor), Tonhalle, Zurich, 3.3.2017. (JR)

Mahler – Symphony No. 6 (“Tragic”)

Audience expectation ran high at the Tonhalle and the eager anticipation was even palpable in the cloakroom before this concert. Everyone in the Zurich music world appeared to be here, and some had no doubt travelled here for an event of this musical calibre. The hall was a sell-out and I even spotted a “Suche Karte” sign outside, a rarity in these parts. When the lights dimmed before anyone had come on stage, I thought Zinman was going to be given a medal or freedom of the city, but no, it was a cash call to patrons to name a seat in the “new” temporary hall while the Tonhalle shortly undergoes three years of modernisation and refurbishment.

Zinman became Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra in 1995 and held that position for nigh on twenty years. His successor, Lionel Bringuier, has not found general favour (other than in French music) and the search for his successor is in progress. So Zinman’s “return” as Honorary Conductor was again welcomed by audience and orchestra alike (Zinman’s first return, last summer, was to conduct a Bruckner’s Fifth) and what better work to perform than a major and meaty Mahler symphony, his Sixth.

Mahler wrote this symphony, a favourite of mine since student days, in the summers of 1903 and 1904 at a time when things were going well for him. This contrasts starkly with the symphony’s nickname, “Tragic”, highlighted by the shattering hammer blows in the final movement. Did Mahler already have premonitions of impending calamities? Could he already foresee the different tragedies which would befall him, his young family, his relationship with his flirtatious wife Alma and world politics in general?

Zinman is now indisputably one of the leading Mahlerians and his interpretations fit in somewhere mid-way between the ultra-neurotic Tennstedt, super-charged Bernstein and the cool Boulezian approach. Haitink may be more solid, Zinman more nuanced.

Zinman certainly brought the tragic elements of the score to the fore without ever descending into exaggeration. He illuminated phrases that normally fall below the radar. Zinman hardly looked at the score. His tempi were always judicious and unwavering. The militaristic march, which opens the symphony, set the tone for the whole symphony and technically the orchestra gave a (virtually) flawless performance of recording quality, unsurprising given the number of principals present to play for their old boss: it was very much the “A” team.

You would expect a Swiss orchestra to do cowbells with an air of authenticity – and they did sound spot on, even in their randomness, as did the church bells. The bass drummer even used a spotty black and white cow cushion to dampen the reverberations; his colleague on the cymbals and hammer sported natty red braces with Edelweiss motifs.

Zinman looked relaxed and content throughout, much like a grandparent looking after a young grandchild – having plenty of fun without needing to worry about the administrative side of parental care. His only concession to his age (80) was a glass of water; he certainly looked fit and well. Retirement is clearly doing him good.

The Andante showcased string playing of the highest order and great delicacy, whilst in the Scherzo we delighted in the rustic charm of its central section.

The final movement is not the most accessible but Zinman’s decades of Mahlerian experience held it all together convincingly. The movement has something of the night about it, looking forward to the Nachtmusik of his Seventh symphony. The final glorious pages brought the house down with especially loud roars for the conductor.

No-one was in any doubt: a highlight of the concert season had been witnessed. We look forward to many more “returns” over the coming years.

John Rhodes

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