Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich excels in its late-romantic Wagner/Strauss outing

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner, R. Strauss: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (soprano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Marek Janowski (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich 9.12.2021. (GA)

  Hanna-Elisabeth Müller

Wagner – Overture and ‘Bacchanal’ from Tannhäuser; Siegfried Idyll

R. StraussFour Last Songs; Death and Transfiguration Op.24

It was with a certain trepidation that one approached the Tonhalle: first, this was a concert in the time of Covid: masks, certificates, residual risk. In addition, the international soprano engaged for Strauss’s Four Last Songs had cancelled due to reisetechnische Gründe (travel issues). Covid again, presumably! And who knew if the replacement would be up to scratch?

The programme was heavily reminiscent of Zürich’s musical history. The 1895 opening season of the new Tonhalle featured both the ‘Bacchanal’ and Death and Transfiguration. Strauss composed Four Last Songs near Zürich, when he was living here after WWII. And finally, Wagner composed the Siegfried Idyll a couple of mountains over, in Lucerne; and 13 members of the Tonhalle Orchestra premiered the work for the birthday of Wagner’s wife, Cosima, in 1870.

Entering the hall, it was clear that this time we were to experience the full pack in full cry. Two rows of seats had been removed, the stage extended forward. A battery of basses angled their necks skyward; there were two harps, a half-acre of timpani…

Wagner began the programme. The overture to Tannhäuser was a delightful wallow through the melodies – the pious ‘Pilgrim’s Chorus’; Heinrich’s hymn to unbridled lust – that we would all be humming under our breath in the tram on the way home. The bacchanal was as wild as its history. Wagner had not planned a ballet interlude, but the Parisians insisted. Wagner complied, inserting it just after the overture where it would not interfere with his opera. The Parisians rebelled, tempestuous scenes ensued, and the production was abandoned after three performances. Yet Wagner retained the section, though it is difficult to imagine that his heart was in it. Clearly, it did provide a much-needed, explicitly implicit statement of the forbidden Venusberg’s temptations. Back in Zürich, and approaching the climax, the percussionists were having entirely too much fun, zealously lending the barbarous crash of cymbals and a ghastly rattle of castanets to underscore the wanton nature of the goings-on. Timpani throbbed, piccolos wailed. Clarinets and harps brought release, which horns and strings developed into a sometimes uneasy but final equilibrium.

After the applause and a minor redistribution of chairs and stands… there she stood.

Even coming across the stage, she had been in character. But, one might ask, what character? After all, here was a soprano in her fresh prime, singing the last songs written by a composer a full half-century older than she when he wrote them: a composer conjuring up memories of springs experienced; shivering against the autumn chill; welcoming slumber; contemplating the onset of night, death’s second self.

Whatever character it was, it worked: ‘centred’ comes to mind. And ‘serene’. From her first note, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s voice was artless – artfully so. Unpretentious. And right. It floated, soared – effortless. There are more muscular interpretations of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs) though there is truly no muscle in them, none at all. The songs are about infinite acceptance, boundless wonder. And this voice portrayed this wonderfully: the last mystery, the sublime.

Müller was ably seconded by the Tonhalle Orchestra, with concertmaster Klaidi Sahatçi contributing the solo in ‘Beim Schlafengehen‘. A word, incidentally, about orchestras: to the Lied singer, the orchestra is not a friend: at best, a partner; often a rival, and at times a spiteful one. It can mask the clearest diction; overpower the strongest forte; force soloists into corners of their vocal envelope where they do not wish to go. Müller easily navigated these shoals. Also, in contrast to the recital accompanist, the orchestra plays extensive passages alone, leaving the soloist with nothing to do but appear … decorative. The high-impact concert gowns recruited to rivet audiences’ attention are legendary. Müller’s gown – though beige – was reminiscent of the overheated age in which Strauss’s four songs should have been composed: those years of fin de siècle malaise long before the Great War. Despite which, the audience’s attention was riveted nonetheless. Such control! So self-possessed! And when the melancholy flutes had trilled their last, and the final chords faded, that audience was hugely enthusiastic in its applause, vocal in its appreciation.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and Marek Janowski (conductor)

After intermission, we returned to find the orchestral resources much reduced for Siegfried Idyll – though the strings were augmented: the 1870 premiere had squeaked by with a meagre five! Here was a rare glimpse of Wagner as miniaturist, and the listener could truly sense the tenderness and love of which the man was capable. For such a small ensemble, held for the most part to modest dynamic levels, the watchwords were necessarily ‘precision’ and ‘transparency’: those primary virtues on which the far more elusive qualities of warmth and feeling are built. Clearly inspired by the thought of that first performance almost 151 years ago, the group rose magnificently to the challenge.

With the full orchestra again at his disposal, Marek Janowski now stood before the evening’s most demanding task: Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung. His directing was as ever sober and to-the-point: result-orientated, as a modern businessman might put it. Neither expansive of gesture nor extravagant in his choreography, his movements were nonetheless expressive, his entries precise and legible. That was a good thing. There is a lot going on in the Strauss, and the unbroken flood of sound from the orchestra was highly dependent on effective coordination. From the sheer poignancy of the Largo first movement, through the dramatic struggle of the second, the grandiose, expansive sweep of the third and the luminous culmination of the fourth, the Tonhalle Orchestra translated Strauss’s vision of the artistic life into almost transcendent audible form. The audience knew what it had received: thunderous applause and enthusiastic bravos filled the air.

Griff Anderson

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