Orozco-Estrada’s Stirring Debut with the Tonhalle

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Janáček, Prokofiev, Dvořák: Hilary Hahn (violin), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 3.2.2018. (JR)

JanáčekTaras Bulba

Prokofiev – Violin Concerto No.1 op.19

Dvořák – Symphony No.7 op.70

Janáček composed his short tone poem Taras Bulba in 1915, in the same year that Prokofiev wrote his First Violin Concerto; they are works of utterly different styles, Prokofiev the more modern in flavour, both imbued with the forebodings of major armed conflict.

Janáček plunges us straight into his own fabulous and unique sound-world, evoking unmistakable sounds from some of his operas, Cunning Little Vixen, Jenůfa and Katya Kabanova. The story of Taras Bulba, based on a Gogol novel written in 1865, is savage: Taras Bulba is a fearless Cossack eager to send his two sons to war. However his first son falls in love with a Polish girl (the enemy) and betrays his fellows, so his father shoots him; the second son is captured, tortured and killed. Taras himself is also captured and burnt alive. The music vividly captures this tragedy, though Orozco-Estrada kept the volume restrained, allowing the elements of the piece to be more transparent. The (free-standing) organ was particular delicate, whilst Isaac Duarte’s mellow oboe was a highlight. The trio of trombones (plus tuba) blazed magnificently, the violins shrieked their anguish and the magnificent ending thrilled, with the three giant church bells tolling along with tubular bells, bringing the work to a stirring climax.

After the Janáček, the Prokofiev threatened to underwhelm. Hilary Hahn appeared, visibly pregnant (with her second child to be born in ‘late spring’) and in a long purple glittering gown neatly covering her bump. Hahn’s considerable technique was never in a smidgeon of doubt.

It has to be said that the work belongs in the composer’s less easily accessible portfolio of work. The first movement is angular and somewhat bleak reflecting the politics of the time. The Scherzo was dispatched with effervescence and motoric intensity. The final pages made the greatest impact, music of celestial beauty. Hahn glided us into the ether and rewarded us, by way of an encore, with some clean, crisp Bach.

This was, surprisingly, Orozco-Estrada’s debut with the Tonhalle. He is Principal Conductor of the very well regarded Hessischer Rundfunk (hr) Orchestra in Frankfurt (where Eliahu Inbal made his name, and Paavo Järvi recently held the reins); Orozco-Estrada is also Chief Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Colombian by birth, short in stature, but with eye-catching swaying, litheness and muscularity. The members of the orchestra were clearly taken by him, and he with them judging by his lengthy applause.

Orozco-Estrada’s balletic attributes benefited the dance-like rhythms of the Dvořák. The Seventh Symphony is one of the most popular in all symphonic repertoire and cannot fail to appeal. It was commissioned by the London Philharmonic Society and was a huge success. Dvořák called it his Second Symphony, embarrassed by what he perhaps perceived, by then, as a certain lack of quality in his early symphonies. (Nowadays we hardly ever hear symphony numbers 1 to 4 in concert). Brahms, on hearing the work, commented. ‘That lad’ (Dvořák was a butcher’s son) ‘has more ideas than all of us. We could make something great with his offcuts’.

Orozco-Estrada has recorded all the Dvořák symphonies with the Houston Symphony Orchestra and his considerable experience with the composer showed. This was a homogenous reading, full of detail and energy. The first movement swaggered; the rest of the work was joyous and delicate in turn. Orozco-Estrada swayed to the Slavonic dance themes and the orchestra were suitably infected.

Hopefully, after a very warm reception from the audience and orchestra, Orozco-Estrada will be invited back soon, perhaps with more Dvořák?

John Rhodes

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