Igor Levit and Lionel Bringuier are Utterly Electrifying

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Berlioz, Brahms: Igor Levit (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Lionel Bringuier (conductor), Igor Levit (piano), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 5.4.2018. (JR)

Igor Levit (c) Robbie Lawrence

Berlioz – Symphonie Fantastique Op.14

Brahms – Piano Concerto No.1 Op.15

Lionel Bringuier’s days at the helm of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich may be numbered (much anticipated Paavo Järvi takes over next season), but he is by no means a lame duck Chief Conductor, neither he nor the orchestra would be so unprofessional as to let standards slip. One does wonder though what the relationship and atmosphere must be like between the outgoing maestro and the orchestra. On the face of it, at this concert, it was all bonhomie.

Before the concert, I was unsure in which order the two works in the evening’s programme would be played. The advance season booklet indicated the concerto would round off the evening, but the evening’s programme indicated otherwise on the front page while then proceeding to describe the ‘symphony’ first. In the event, we heard the Brahms first, which I think made utter musical sense.

After the concerto’s lengthy orchestral introduction, all eyes and ears were on Igor Levit – only just 30 – whose rise to pianistic stardom is already meteoric. He hunches over the keyboard (I fear for his back in later years) and stares at it throughout. In the first movement, when not playing, he thumped the side of his piano stool, in time with the music, like an impatient and nervous school-boy. His playing was frenetic but utterly captivating; it mattered not that there were one or two wrong notes. When Levit played, the audience did not move a muscle and kept the coughing for between movements (thankfully no one applauds between movements in Zurich – yet). Levit took the slow movement more slowly than I have ever heard it and, for most of the time, it worked; it certainly was not sentimental, and gave the movement added nobility. The Rondo was taken at full pelt, viscerally most exciting; in complete contrast, his lightness of touch in the central section was exceptional, he often hardly seemed to touch the keyboard. By the end, Levit quivered to a halt as though disconnected from the electricity supply. It was all astounding and the audience erupted. One had hardly noticed the contribution from Bringuier and the orchestra, which I suppose is a good sign; they had however worked hard to adhere to Levit’s chosen tempi.

After the interval, the focus was on the orchestra in Berlioz’s fantastic work, his evocation of a wild, hallucinatory dream. Bringuier and the orchestra held Berlioz’s dramatic thread throughout. All the usual suspect principals took their turns to impress, especially the cor anglais. French native Bringuier has this music in his pores, of course, and the orchestra clearly enjoyed playing the work. The ‘March to the Scaffold’ and ‘Witches Sabbath’ both were high voltage. Their exuberance spilled over into the audience who stomped their approval and, unusually for a ‘home’ concert, virtually demanded an encore; the orchestra even got the music ready, but none was given.

In May Bringuier returns for Britten’s Piano Concerto (with Leif Ove Andsnes) and Rimsky’s Shéhérazade, finally bowing out with Don Quixote and Rachmaninov’s Fourth Piano Concerto at the Zurich Festival in June.

After this concert, Bringuier will take the orchestra on a lengthy European tour (with Igor Levit), to Vienna (April 9th), Essen (10th), Hamburg (at the new Elbphilharmonie 11th), Paris (12th), Heidelberg (14th), Zaragoza (17th) and Madrid (18th and 19th). Catch them if you can; I hope I have whetted your musical appetite. You will not be disappointed.

John Rhodes

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