Saint-Saëns mighty Organ Symphony inaugurates Zurich Tonhalle’s new organ

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Dubugnon, Connesson, Saint-Saëns: Christian Schmitt (organ), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 23.9.2021. (JR)

Christian Schmitt (c) Zurich Tonhalle

DubugnonCaprice V Zürcher Art for orchestra Op.72 No.5 (world première)
ConnessonConcerto da Requiem for organ and orchestra
Saint-Saëns – Symphony No.3 Op.78, Organ Symphony

Zurich’s splendidly renovated Tonhalle has a brand new organ, built by local organ-builders Orgelbau Kuhn AG. My inexperienced ears (at least as far as the organ is concerned) could not detect much wrong with the old one, except that tall tenors and basses in the back row of the choir would frequently hit their heads on low-hanging organ pipes; the old organ has been shipped off to a cathedral in Eastern Europe. This concert was principally dedicated to organ music (with orchestra).

For lovers of facts and figures, the new organ has 4,764 pipes, 80 registers, took four years to construct and weighs 25,500 kilos.  It is a mighty beast; to quote Mozart, it is the ‘Queen of the Instruments’.

The organ is a tricky instrument to incorporate into a symphonic work. It can be either too soft and drowned by the orchestra, or too loud and dominant. That is why it is used sparingly and only for the occasional sonic boom. Richard Strauss and Mahler knew how to employ it. Organ music per se works well in recital, but you need to have a penchant for the sound; many find it often turgid. Its resonance comes over best when walking into or out of a large church.

Richard Dubugnon is a Swiss composer, now just over 50, who has composed a series of short orchestral works. This fifth Caprice has been dedicated to the Tonhalle and Paavo Järvi. It is based on a musical fragment (the theme from the song ‘L’Oasis’ from Dubugnon’s short opera Le Songe Salinas) which is subjected to a number of variations. There are solo parts for E-flat clarinet, cor anglais, viola, horn, oboe and cello (in this case a splendid contribution from Principal Anita Leuzinger). The piece is full of contrast, covering jazz, choral and chamber music. According to Dubugnon, it stretches the orchestra and its conductor to their limits. The piece starts and finishes with a crack of the whip, except that, sadly, a real whip cannot – for health and safety reasons, and restrictions on space – be used. There is a tradition of whip-cracking in Switzerland, especially in the mountains of the rural, inner cantons. It is often part of ‘Fasnacht’ (Carnival) and said to chase away the winter, or bad spirits. In concert a wooden clacker takes the whip’s place. Whilst the piece is not unappealing, nor lacks interest, it failed to hold my attention. It received a polite reception; the composer was in the audience.

Guillaume Connesson is regarded by Paavo Järvi as one of the finest contemporary French composers, and I could hear why. His Concerto da Requiem was premièred in Basel last year, and made a huge impression there; this was the work’s première in Zurich. The short piece has three of the elements of a traditional Requiem, but without a choir. The organ is the quasi-soloist. It starts with a darkly brooding and contemplative Kyrie, the Dies Irae utilizes much industrial percussion, there is a macabre dance section, an ethereal solo for the vibraphone, and in the finale there is light, and hope for a better life after death. It is a work of considerable quality and received a very warm reception; again, the composer was in the audience.

Saint-Saëns was known as a gifted pianist and organist. Musicians from all over the world came to church services at the Madeleine in Paris to hear him play the organ. His Third Symphony is not a concerto for organ; the organ is not a virtuoso vehicle; the instrument blends in – insofar as any such huge and noisy instrument can blend in – with the fabric of the work. The impressive organ player in this concert, Christian Schmitt, has been Principal Organist with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra since 2014, and has played in Berlin under Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim. He assisted as an expert in the construction and installation of the Tonhalle’s new organ, so who better than him to play at this inaugural concert.

After the Connesson, Schmitt gave us an unexpected and unusual mid-concert encore, the ‘Allelujah’ by 20th-century French composer and organist Jean Langlais. This piece is played only with the organist’s feet, using no hands at all (except to change register). From my seat in the balcony, I had a perfect view of the organist on his mobile console and saw his feet slide, jump and jab to great effect. It was certainly quite a feat – please excuse the pun.

Then on to Saint-Saëns and the old war-horse, his Organ Symphony. After the slow, serene introduction, with its contemplative soft organ accompaniment, the movement becomes urgent and Järvi was able to drive the music forward with vim; he never made the work sound like schmaltz. Isaac Duarte’s oboe solos stood out. The second part, despite its Gallic lyricism, does have its longueurs; everyone is simply waiting for the organ to burst into life. When it does, accompanied by four-handed piano, it is a glorious sound and the finale builds to its gloriously over-the-top coda.

The Tonhalle has acquired a splendid new instrument. Tonight, it was the star of the show.

John Rhodes

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