Robin Ticciati and the LSO in Tonhalle Zurich introduce the Swiss to Walton’s Viola Concerto

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Walton, Brahms: Antoine Tamestit (viola), London Symphony Orchestra / Robin Ticciati (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 21.10.2021. (JR)

Antoine Tamestit (viola) after a recent performance with the LSO © Mark Allan

Walton – Viola Concerto

Brahms – Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

The London Symphony Orchestra has been touring Switzerland (no EU visa problems here), and ended their tour in Zurich, courtesy of major arts sponsor Migros Kulturprozent Classics. Their programme brought a work that would have been unfamiliar to most Swiss concertgoers – and hardly very familiar to any Brits in the audience either.

William Walton composed his Viola Concerto for Lionel Tertis in 1929; but Tertis did not like it, although he attended the first performance and saw the error of his ways, taking up the work later. It was left to composer and violist Paul Hindemith to step in for the premiere. The problem was that Hindemith was a more proficient composer than violist; the performance was, nevertheless, a success. Benjamin Britten, then still a teenager, recognised the work as one of genius. The more traditional Elgar, on the other hand, struggled with it. The work starts ruminatively, with not much in the whole first movement to alleviate the melancholy. The short Scherzo and Trio, which follow, are much lighter in feel, though volume builds inexorably, and the music is sometimes militaristic. The final movement is the longest of the three movements, and full of interest.

French violist Antoine Tamestit, playing on a loaned Stradivarius dating back to 1672, clearly knows the work well – some years ago he played it in Frankfurt under Manfred Honeck. (Incidentally, Stradivarius only made 15 or so violas, and the one played by Tamestit is the first of this series, unusually using poplar wood, more often employed for celli. This gives the instrument a particularly deep, mellow sound.) It is clear how much Tamestit, in a natty plum-coloured suit, adores the Walton and will have convinced many that this is indeed a fine work. A prior knowledge of Walton’s soundworld will assist the listener; I was often reminded of his First Symphony, which I consider a masterpiece. Tamestit was impressive in the reflective passages, virtuosic in the fast passages, and his double-stopping was flawless. He received an ecstatic response and rewarded us with some Bach as an encore.

Brahms’s Fourth Symphony can almost play itself; it was, however, awarded playing of the highest order; it was good to hear the LSO on top form. Robin Ticciati lovingly moulded the opening phrases, with regular sweeps of his left arm. He also delivered ample urgency and Brahmsian weight. The performance was not quite as impressive as that of Semyon Bychkov with the Tonhalle Orchestra or Christian Thielemann and the Dresdners in Lucerne in past years.

Every section of the LSO showed off their skills, and only occasionally was the orchestra too loud. The LSO just played the work in the cavernous KKL in Lucerne and are used to large halls such as the Barbican; the Tonhalle is not that large and the acoustics very open. It was pleasing to see young principals leading the horns and trumpets, the section that stood out being the trombone section. The strings were lush across the board, principal flute and oboe pleased the ear.

The pleasant but rather innocuous encore had me guessing – it turned out to be an excerpt from Dvořák’s Legends.

John Rhodes

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