Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich season opens with mysterious Pärt and ebullient Beethoven

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Pärt, Beethoven: Andreas Janke (violin), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor), Tonhalle Maag, Zurich, 24.9.2020. (JR)

Paavo Järvi (c) Gaëtan Bally

PärtLa Sindone for violin and orchestra (Swiss première)

Beethoven – Symphony No.7, Op.92

The Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich has opened its season, promising live concerts for the whole year, with increasing seat capacity as the season progresses (unless the second or future waves of Covid-19 make this impossible). At the moment, the orchestra is allowing just under half the seats to be sold, using a chessboard pattern. Couples or friends who attempt to sit together are separated by the ushers. The clear message to the burghers of Zurich (especially the older ones who normally form the backbone of the audience) is that they should not hesitate or be frightened to attend concerts again, since the orchestra’s management have ensured it is safe to do so.

The hour-long concert opened with a very short piece (a mere six minutes) by the orchestra’s current Creative Chair, and close friend of Chief Conductor Paavo Järvi, Arvo Pärt. La Sindone for violin and symphony orchestra was composed in 2019 based on an orchestra piece of the same name, which Pärt had written in response to a commission from the organiser of the Settembre Musica festival in Turin in 2006. In the new version of La Sindone, a solo violin part has been added to the orchestra. I do not know the original piece but have to say the violin part, performed by one of the orchestra’s Concertmasters, Andreas Janke, was minimal: a few harmonics apart, I hardly heard it.

La Sindone (The Shroud) refers to the Shroud of Turin stored in Turin Cathedral. Pärt’s composition is in one movement and is a musical reflection and journey in the footsteps of this religious mystery. I searched for meaning but found none myself. Pärt has moved on from serene tintinnabulations, and this work is something of a shock. It starts with loud bells and unusually abrasive dissonant outbursts; it then moves on to a more recognizable style for this composer, mysterious and nebulous, always approachable. The composer was not in attendance for this Swiss première; at 85 years of age, he wisely decided to stay safe in Estonia.

We went straight into the main work of the evening: Beethoven’s glorious Seventh Symphony, a joyous high-spirited work in these gloomy times. Järvi gave us, after the quiet introduction, a muscular opening and verily bounced along at all times. In the slower Allegretto second movement Järvi neatly dovetailed powerful passages with more graceful, elegant sections. The Presto was energetic; percussionist Klaus Schwärzler enjoying his outing on the baroque kettle drums with suitably hard sticks: one of the orchestra’s usual timpanists, Benjamin Forster, is undergoing a year-long trial at the Berlin Philharmonic.

The final Allegro con brio was a real explosive helter-skelter, with Järvi relishing it, taking the movement at a very fast lick. He and the orchestra were rewarded by a standing ovation and lengthy applause. We were all pleased to be back.

Järvi’s next concert with the orchestra, at the end of October, should have been Bruckner’s mighty Fourth Symphony. Even though audience numbers in the hall will have been increased by then, a decision has been taken to postpone the Bruckner and play Schumann’s delightful ‘Rhenish’ Symphony No.3 instead. Zurich is still fortunate to have live concerts, with major works, to attend.

John Rhodes

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