Two Second Symphonies for the Price of One

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Brahms, Bernstein: Krystian Zimerman (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / David Zinman (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 22.3.2018. (JR)

Brahms – Symphony No.2 op.73

Bernstein – Symphony No.2 for piano and orchestra, ‘The Age of Anxiety’

David Zinman, former Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich for many years, returned from the States to affectionate applause from orchestra and audience alike. It was like the return of a favourite old uncle. Now 81, Zinman has trouble with steps, but once on the podium his vigour is virtually undiminished.

The surprise in the order of play was that the Brahms preceded the Bernstein. It could easily have been the other way around, although the Bernstein has arguably the more monumental ending.

Anyhow, we launched straight into the Brahms, and just like the return of the old uncle, this was the return of the old favourite and comforting symphony. Many in the audience will have known every bar, but the account was far from run-of-the-mill. The orchestra’s foremost principals were very much in evidence for this concert, clearly they wanted to play again under their old master. This bore fruit in playing of the highest quality (I was particularly taken by Isaac Duarte’s oboe, neatly dovetailing with Kaspar Zimmermann’s second oboe) and a performance of recording quality.

Zinman’s interpretation was entirely devoid of idiosyncrasy, he was never one for mannerisms. The opening movement flowed seamlessly, with a very steady pace; the second movement was delicate and weighty in turn, as required, with plenty of Brahmsian heft; and after a delightful Allegretto grazioso, we relished the spirited final movement, never rushed but with an exhilarating finish. Smiles all round for a job very well done.

If we all, or virtually all, knew the Brahms, this cannot have been the case for the Bernstein. It has elements of a symphony, but also of a piano concerto. The piano is much in evidence, picking up themes and tossing them into the orchestra for development. This hybrid work has not gained all that much popularity this side of the Pond, and usually only when an American is on the podium. It’s not easy Bernstein (West Side Story or the Overture to Candide); it’s serious, introvert, almost cerebral Bernstein, perhaps written when Bernstein was in one of his many personal crises. It has strong echoes of Shostakovich. One viola player in the orchestra confided that the work grew on her, the more she played it. Sadly, the audience only got one bite at the cherry. It’s a bitty work, with very many interesting, occasionally charming features, but it rather puzzles as a whole.

The work is based on W H Auden’s book-length poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’, written in 1947, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Bernstein was much taken by the work. The plot is simple: four strangers (one woman and three men) are strangers in a bar in New York City. (The iconic painting by Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, painted in 1942, might have been a catalyst for the story). The strangers chat, retire for a nightcap at the woman’s apartment and fall into a drunken stupor. In the morning they return to the drudgery of their dreary lives, but at least one appears to find faith. The bulk of the poem is taken up by a discussion of the seven ages of man (which Auden updates from Shakespeare).

Bernstein’s work opens with two plangent clarinets in semi-improvised style; it intrigues at once. Then the piano enters, starting the first of many ‘variations’, except that they do not actually vary a common theme. I would have liked a longer programme note detailing the variations, but then how many people follow the programme, let alone read it in advance?  A young mop-headed Zimerman played this work under Bernstein back in 1986 as part of the LSO Bernstein Festival at the Barbican, and he clearly has an affinity with the work. Now thirty years later, his mop is now white but he has much added experience: he still needed a score, the work is complex. He toyed with and teased many of the single notes and surprised us, being such a classical interpreter of other works, with his jazzy and relaxed playing in the penultimate section of the piece, ‘The Masque’, representing a sort of party. It is the section which most appeals to an audience, with ample use of percussion and added tinkle from celesta and upright piano. After the riffs, the final section calms down before ending in a monumental burst of church bells, tubular bells, gong and full orchestra to make a rousing ending. I am personally not convinced it is a masterpiece, but it is a work well worth hearing and it did leave a marked impression.

John Rhodes

Leave a Comment