Julia Fischer and Juanjo Mena Excel in Less Popular Fare

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Britten, Bruckner: Julia Fischer (violin), Tonhalle Orchester Zurich / Juanjo Mena (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich 10.1.2019. (JR)

Julia Fischer (c) Uwe Arens
Julia Fischer (c) Uwe Arens

Britten – Violin Concerto Op.15
Bruckner  – Symphony No.6

Heavy snow blanketed the city of Zurich on the day of this performance, which may have accounted for the large number of empty seats in the hall; I suspect, though, it was the choice of works – less than popular fare.

Britten wrote his multi-faceted Violin Concerto in 1938 when he was only 25. It’s not a work of instant appeal, although it can probably grow on you with repeated listening: I haven’t quite got there yet, I must admit. In a letter, the composer wrote: ‘I’ve written a big heavyweight violin concerto. So far it’s without question my best piece. It’s rather serious, I’m afraid – but it’s got some tunes in it’. It is not easily assimilated material, influenced by Berg’s grief-ridden concerto, which Britten had heard a few years earlier in Barcelona. He was staying in Catalonia with his violinist friend Antonio Brosa who assisted Britten with the technical aspects of the work and who was the soloist in the very first recording in 1952. Civil War in Franco’s Spain was raging and World War II was looming; but Britten was in love with Peter Pears, with whom he emigrated to the United States in 1939. There are some Spanish influences in the work, notably the rhythmic motif in the first movement and in the Sarabande in the final movement, though they are not easy to detect.

The concerto presents numerous demanding challenges for the soloist (Isaac Stern declared it unplayable); more young violinists appear, however, to be picking up the cudgels for the work. There are recent recordings by Daniel Hope, Vilde Frang, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Maxim Vengerov. The concerto also seems to be finding more public acceptance, though it still has some way to go to becoming popular.

Fischer surmounted the manifold technical difficulties with consummate ease; there is plenty of high-wire finger work, double-stopped harmonics and some magical false harmonics. Fischer was convincing, and won the audience over with her clear affection for the concerto and her skill. Fischer was perhaps not as barn-storming or intense as Isabelle Faust, whom I heard play the work a few years earlier under Sir Roger Norrington. Credit for the fine performance must also go to Juanjo Mena, who guided the orchestra through the work unobtrusively, which was quite proper given the fact that the soloist plays almost constantly throughout the entire work. The performance did not leave me emotionally drained, so I was able to enjoy the delightful encore, Bach’s Fugue in E minor.

Bruckner (who revered Bach) cheekily described his Sixth Symphony as his ‘perkiest’ (‘meine Sechste ist die keckste’). It is somewhat unjustly overshadowed by its more illustrious neighbours, the powerful Fourth, the much revised and impressive Fifth, the popular and oft played Seventh and my favourite, the glorious Eighth. Neverthless the Sixth has more than its occasional moments. Bruckner never in fact heard the whole symphony in concert, it was first performed (in 1899) under the baton of the then newly appointed Director of the Vienna State Opera, Gustav Mahler, two years after Bruckner’s death. Mahler apparently took it upon himself to make some revisions to the score, shortening the work and changing the instrumentation. He increased the brass in the final bars to give vent to its full power. We heard the original version which, in Zurich’s modern shoe-box of a temporary hall, one could even say match-box, was plenty loud enough.

Mena has been championing the Sixth around Europe; I see he played it with the BBC Philharmonic and Oslo Philharmonic last year. He used no score and had a firm grip on the work’s detail and shape. Mena also appears to have impressed with performances of the Fourth and the Ninth in previous seasons, and he has certainly joined the league of current fine Bruckner conductors. A few more rehearsals would have tidied some of the untidier edges, but that takes nothing away from the overall quality of the performance. The opening movement had the brass blazing, the timpani (Christian Hartmann) accompanying with rhythmic aplomb. Isaac Duarte (oboe) impressed in the weighty slow movement, Maestoso; the outer sections of this movement, however, tended to drag. There was plenty of rhythmic bounce in the Scherzo, the Trio providing some gentle calm. The last movement is probably the least satisfactory, rather unrefined, like Bruckner himself, but make no mistake, this was an excellent and most enjoyable performance to savour.

This was Juanjo Mena’s debut with the Tonhalle Orchestra; there appeared to be mutual respect and admiration. Hopefully he will be invited back for more Bruckner next season – his Eighth perhaps?

John Rhodes

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