Virile Brahms First Symphony from Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Martinů, Brahms: Katia and Marielle Labèque (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 4.11.2021. (JR)

Katia and Marielle Labèque (c) Umberto Nicoletti

Martinů – Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra

Brahms – Symphony No.1 in C minor, Op.68

The Labèque sisters normally ensure a sell-out house. This wasn’t quite a sell-out, perhaps the prospect of some unknown Martinů failed to draw in the crowds. Martinů wrote a huge number of concertos, indeed he was a prodigious composer, with some 400 works (not quite in the Bach or Telemann league though). The concertos are not top drawer but many have something to offer. I struggle to think of a Martinů masterpiece, but no doubt a reader will guide me. I have sung his oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh – an interesting work, but hardly a masterpiece. I have also seen his opera Julietta and felt uncertain of the merits of that work, despite the affection which the late Sir Charles Mackerras held for the piece (he told me so personally).

The Labèque sisters play the Martinů concerto regularly – it is in their standard repertoire. Paavo Järvi has performed Richard Dubugnon’s ‘Battlefield’ Concerto for Two Pianos with the Labèque sisters and the Orchestre de Paris and praises their meticulous preparation and exciting playing. Järvi describes the Martinů piece as ‘interesting and unusual’, a fair assessment. It is dense, interesting harmonically, drawing on the composer’s Czech roots but incorporating modernism in the form of jazzy rhythms. Järvi grew to admire Martinů through his father, Neeme, who has recorded all of his symphonies. He and the Labèques gave us a persuasive performance, with keyboard pyrotechnics from the opening bar. Considering it was written in 1943 in the US as an expression of the composer’s anxieties at the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, this was not as angry an interpretation as I was expecting. Indeed I found much jazzy jollity and rhythmic abandon in their reading, and there is certainly optimism in the finale. The Labèques’ technical prowess, throughout, was exceptional. One advantage of a concerto for two pianos is that virtually every listener is on the keyboard side, many of us could witness the fingers working at high speed; seats in the very centre of the hall were at a distinct disadvantage. Acoustics for the two pianos in the newly renovated Tonhalle were crystal clear, forward and reverberant. The Labèques hardly stopped for breath, but at the end of the work, despite amusing flourishes from the tambourine, I remained unconvinced; the concerto is worth hearing – but maybe only the once.

The Labèques then played an encore that had everyone enthralled. I intially failed to find out what it was. (Why don’t soloists and conductors announce their encores?). Anyhow, I did think this one was by Philip Glass, and that proved to be right as I was told later it was the fourth of his Four Movements for Two Pianos.

It apparently proved so popular during the pandemic not to have intervals that this has become the new ‘norm’ and it was straight into Brahms. After something less familiar, we were served an evergreen classic – astute programming by Järvi. In a listing of recommended recordings of the Brahms First Symphony I spotted that a performance by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Järvi was mentioned as one of the top recommendations. And sure enough, the performance bore witness to an excellent interpretation. Järvi reminded us, in a pre-concert talk, that we have become used to Brahms played by large, Romantic orchestras, conducted by Furtwängler, Walter, Klemperer and the like. But when Brahms conducted the symphony for the first time, there were apparently only 40 players – the same number as in the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie.

The opening told us this was not going to be heavy Brahms, but full of energy and virility. The opening movement was simply splendid. In the slow movement, Simon Fuchs beguiled us with his oboe and his circular breathing, an autumnal mood prevailing. The strings impressed with their togetherness in the pizzicato sections. Other notable contributions came from Mike Reid (clarinet), Sabine Poyé Morel (flute), Andreas Janke (violin) and Ivo Gass (horn). The coda ended the movement with a moment of gentle bliss.

After a graceful third movement, again with a delicate ending, we were into the final, muscular movement, bustling with energy; the Tonhalle gave us some of the finest playing I have heard for a while, though the back strings perhaps lack the sheen of the London Symphony Orchestra I had heard recently. The work suits this conductor’s particular strengths: a lean, rhythmically powerful reading. Järvi has conducted the work 50 or 60 times, yet he admits to coming to the work – and all the great symphonies – each time with fresh ears.

The last page of the score gave us a final brass peroration, which brought the house down – as it always does.

I have just one minor quibble (as I often do): Järvi placed the second violins on the right, the cellos on the left behind the first violins. I am sure there are sound musical reasons for doing so, indeed this antiphonal placing was standard until the early twentieth century. One downside is that whatever the second violins play is thrown to the back of the stage, so virtually inaudible in the hall, and one stares at the backs of the players (particularly Kilian Schneider, the leader of that section). So whilst it may well be historically correct, I prefer to hear all the notes and see all the faces.

John Rhodes

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