Blistering Shostakovich with Viktoria Mullova and a swift Eroica from Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Shostakovich, Beethoven: Viktoria Mullova (violin), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich 29.10.2021. (JR)

Viktoria Mullova (c) Heike Fischer

Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No.1 Op.99

Beethoven – Symphony No.3 Op.55 Eroica

Janine Jansen was to have been the soloist for the Shostakovich concerto, but was indisposed, so in stepped the most experienced and accomplished of replacements in the shape of Viktoria Mullova.

As is well known, Mullova defected from the Soviet Union in 1983; she plays Shostakovich from the heart. Järvi grew up in Pärnu, Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union; he too knows about Soviet oppression. Few other current pairings could therefore bring us such a strong performance of this concerto, put aside by the composer until he felt able to release it after Stalin’s death. He considered it, probably rightly and along with his Fourth Symphony, as too modern for its time and the conservative forces of Soviet culture.

Mullova played this concerto with Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerorchester around eight years ago, to great acclaim; she has also recorded it under André Previn. Her sound is rough and Russian, and that fits this work. It is not a work of superficial niceties, no pretty tunes, it is about raw emotion. Other violinists may seek to interpret, but Mullova just plays the notes – perfectly. It is all in the score and she just lets the music speak; Mullova is uniquely intuitive – and Paavo Järvi does nothing to interfere. I did wonder after the performance what Jansen would have made of it.

Mullova, dressed head to toe in bright red, stood imperiously with her Stradivarius and was a picture of intense concentration throughout, only able to break into a broad grin when all was done. Järvi received a big non-socially-distanced hug. After the haunting Nocturne which opens the work (which David Oistrakh, the dedicatee of the concerto, characterised as ‘a suppression of feelings’), the demonic Scherzo had Mullova attack her instrument. The Passacaglia was most tenderly played, reintroducing melody to the concerto, but always tinged with Russian sadness. The trio of bassoons and the cor anglais made fine contributions. The jaunty and manic Burlesque brought the work to an end with a final tour de force from Mullova.

Oddly, we were granted no interval, so it was straight into the Eroica. The explosive opening chords told us we were in business. Järvi’s athletic and vigorous conducting kept the work flowing, Järvi always looking to bring out dissonances to remind us how progressive this work must have seemed at the time (1803) to a nineteenth century audience weaned on Haydn and Mozart. As Järvi pointed out after the concert, this is an iconic work, which the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich have in their blood; they have played it regularly and under many different conductors. (The ceiling of the Tonhalle – constructed in 1895 – is inscribed with the names of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, Wagner, Gluck, Bach and Handel – the leading composers of Central Europe.)

According to Järvi, today’s orchestra members often have suggestions to make during rehearsal, which he appreciates, but he clearly had the last say here. The opening movement was played with lashings of brio, as fast as the orchestra could manage (my musical neighbour said you simply cannot play Beethoven too fast). The more weighty second movement gave the woodwind their chance to shine (Isaac Duarte principal oboe, and clarinettist Felix-Andreas Genner, in particular). The horns were resplendent in the Scherzo, an unusual opening single fluff apart. Järvi launched into the last movement with hardly a moment’s hesitation – here Sabine Poyé Morel’s golden flute was captivating.

In the audience sat Gianandrea Noseda, new General Music Director at Zurich Opera; he has just delivered his spectacular inaugural concert with the Philharmonia Zurich, which will be reviewed on this site shortly.

John Rhodes

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