Czech Philharmonic and Truls Mørk on Fine Form in New Zurich Concert Hall

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Janáček & Dvořák: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Truls Mørk (cello) / Tomáš Netopil (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich 24.10.2017. (JR)

Truls Mork
Truls Mørk (c) Migros Kulturprozent Classics

Janáček – Overture Jealousy from Jenůfa

Dvořák – Cello Concerto Op.104; Symphony No.8 Op.88

This was my first visit to Zurich’s newest concert hall, built due to a long-overdue three-year renovation of Zurich’s prestigious Tonhalle concert hall in the centre of town. As a temporary replacement, the powers that be have had constructed an unostentatious wooden shoebox within an existing industrial building, hitherto used for what I believe were one-time “gigs”. 100 tons of spruce have been used to construct what comes over as rather a sterile space, free of all ornamentation, likened by the critic of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung to being in a Finnish sauna. Top acoustics experts have been employed to try to obtain the best possible sound. So in addition to the joy of hearing the Czech Philharmonic play Czech music, I had the added pleasure of forming my first view of the comfort and acoustics of the new hall.

The new hall, formerly called the Maaghalle, now Tonhalle Maag, is a few miles out of town, some considerable way behind the main railway station in an area which was light industrial but is now “hip”, a blend of offices, budget hotels, boutiques, clubs and inexpensive restaurants. The hope is that a new young audience will be attracted to the new venue; the fear is that existing subscribers will be turned off by a destination which is off the beaten track and a hall which has no immediate traditional feel-good factor. So far – and I accept it is too early to tell – the youngsters have not yet been attracted and the number of loyal subscribers has dropped off markedly (rumour has is that the Tonhalle Orchestra has lost 20% of its subscribers). The hall – which seats far fewer than the “old” Tonhalle – was only just over half-full. The old hall – for a concert generously sponsored by retail giant Migros Kulturprozent Classics to lower ticket prices – would have been bursting at the seams. I can confirm seats are moderately comfortable and the air-conditioning effective (though just audible when the orchestra is not loud).

Getting to the hall is still fraught with difficulties. The new tramline extension is not ready yet and the walkways to the bus stops are strewn with building debris and barriers. Though volunteers were stationed between the nearest railway station and the hall to guide patrons safely to their destination, they were not there when we came out, signage is woefully absent and we struggled to find and reach our bus stop.

As to the music: we started with the overture to Jenůfa, which I count as one of my favourite operas. Janáček wrote the overture ten years before writing the opera and then decided not to employ it in the opera at all. The piece does not work on its own, in my view, though the seeds of the opera are clearly audible. It is a very short, multi-layered piece and my first impressions of the hall’s acoustics were not promising, rather a muddy sound.

Acoustics improved considerably for Dvořák’s cello concerto, but at times the orchestra was simply too loud and drowned the fine soloist. Truls Mørk was initially disturbed by the bright lights, squinting at them in the hope that a lighting engineer might dim them a bit, but to no avail. By the end of the concerto, Mørk was visibly over-heating; the lights are clearly going to need some attention.

Mørk gave us some of the most beautiful cello playing I have heard in a long time. The concerto is a gift to soloists, of course, with some technical challenges, but a stream of melodies. Mørk visibly and audibly felt at one with the piece, playing from the heart, his quiet passages were particularly affecting. His recording of the concerto ranks amongst the finest available. The orchestra accompanied sensitively.

The orchestra had its chance, finally, to shine in the symphony, Dvořák’s joyous Eighth.

I was somewhat surprised but pleased to hear that Semyon Bychkov will become the orchestra’s Chief Conductor following the sad demise of Jiří Bělohlávek, though the clutch of young and upcoming Czech conductors (including the talented Tomáš Netopil) will now have to wait some time before they are considered for the post.

The orchestra was in fine form, in all departments. They have a fine young leader, very secure brass (particularly the principal horn and trumpet), sound woodwind and an energetic and characterful double bass section. They may not be in the top flight, but in Czech music, they are hard to beat. Netopil conducted the symphony energetically, without a score, and I suspect the orchestra could have done the same. It was a fast, hugely enjoyable performance and at the end we were rewarded with a Brahms Hungarian Dance encore.

John Rhodes

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