Fine Tonhalle Zurich Performances of Gershwin and Lutosławski From Urbański and Thibaudet

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bernstein, Gershwin, Lutosławski: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Krzysztof Urbanski  (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 21.6.2019. (JR)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (c) Chris Christodoulou

Bernstein – Overture to Candide

Gershwin – Piano Concerto in F

LutosławskiConcerto for Orchestra

On this, the longest day of the year, this concert – although not quite the last of the season – had a distinct end of term feeling to it, at least in the first half. Both the teachers (orchestra members) and students (audience) were happy and smiling – the summer holidays are now just around the corner.

The concert opened with arguably Bernstein’s most popular concert piece, the overture to his rarely performed musical/operetta/comic opera Candide (Bernstein himself classified the work as an operetta). The overture has proven to be much more popular than the operetta itself. It is fun throughout, with brilliant and clever orchestration; at times the genteel members of the Tonhalle Orchestra could, I felt, have played certain sections with more American abandon, but a good time was had by all.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet emerged to play the Gershwin in a discreetly sequined black jacket, but with diamond studs, which my sartorial adviser thought went a step too far – less would have been more. Gershwin’s concerto was written just a year after his enormously popular Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin recognised very early that jazz formed an important and integral part of American music and incorporated it successfully in his compositions. Conservative (white) audiences in the 1920s, however, still felt jazz was vulgar and not of their culture.

Thibaudet proved himself a master of the syncopated riffs and Urbański was ever the attentive and restrained accompanist. The audience deserves credit for not bursting into applause at the thrilling end of the first movement.

The slow second movement had a surprise in store. Heinz Saurer, principal trumpet, went offstage, only to re-appear on the balcony behind the orchestra in a white jacket and black Fedora to play his solos, bathed in blue light. This was highly appropriate as the movement echoes the blues, and indeed the orchestra played with a real feeling for the Blues. Parts of the third and final movement could be considered vulgar by some – though wonderfully so – but Thibaudet steered us skilfully to the work’s grandiose close and a rapturous reception. We were rewarded by an encore, a charming frequently cross-handed Nocturne by Paderewski – who was incidentally Prime Minister of Poland (around 1919) when not composing or playing the piano.

After the interval, a welcome chance to hear a work not often performed, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra, composed in 1954. The Tonhalle Orchestra first played the work in 1976 and last in 2003 under Skrowaczewski. It requires a very large (100-piece) orchestra and the consequent loss of a few rows of front seats in the stalls. Florian Walser, clarinettist in the orchestra, gave a lengthy introduction to the work, highlighting the fact that Lutosławski had collected some eleven Polish folk tunes and adapted them for the piece. Walser arranged four of those songs for a few instrumentalists and then had the whole orchestra play the corresponding part of the concerto.

Bartók wrote his frequently performed Concerto for Orchestra ten years earlier than the Lutosławski, which is considerably more modern. It deserves more outings – the members of the orchestra clearly enjoyed it and enjoyed getting to know the work. Some, who must remain nameless, said they enjoyed playing ‘modern’ music they actually liked. Their sense of satisfaction came over in the performance. Rhythms were taut and dynamics finely controlled by a relatively restrained Urbański who conducted with what must be the longest baton in the business and without a score – impressive in this complex piece. By its close, the work had certainly won many admirers. It reminded me at times of Peter Grimes and also Prokofiev, but it has its own distinctive Polish voice.

John Rhodes

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