Paavo Järvi joins list of ‘illustrious Brucknerians’, with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Schumann, Bruckner: Hélène Grimaud (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 27.1.2022. (JR)

Helénè Grimaud (c) Mat Hennek

Schumann – Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Bruckner – Symphony No. 7 in E major, WAB 1077

Thankfully, Paavo Järvi recovered from Covid in time to fully rehearse and perform this Bruckner, the first of a series.  Symphony No.4 had to be cancelled last week, replaced by Rachmaninov under Lionel Bringuier.

First, though, we were treated to Schumann. Helénè Grimaud is one of the orchestra’s ‘Artists in focus’ – though that does not mean we will see and hear more of her, however.

It is odd to think that Schumann spent his first ten years of composition with solo piano works, and then only put together his one and only piano concerto in a two-week period between his First and Fourth Symphonies. He was then over 30 and had just married Clara. The concerto is clearly dedicated to her, Schumann may even have secretly encoded his wife’s name into the work. The piece would become her signature vehicle; she would give over half the total performances of the work between 1845 and 1900.

Grimaud hardly looked at the keyboard, launched the work with authority, often casting her eyes to the heavens: she was particularly affecting both in the expressive and ardent, but also dreamy passages. The first movement cadenza was full-blooded and showed off her technical skills with some fluid finger-work, with never a note out of place. Grimaud has recorded this work under Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2005 to great acclaim, and performs it frequently.

Paavo Järvi showed his penchant for Schumann with fine accompaniment, drawing lush sounds from the orchestra, and there was total rapport between soloist and conductor. Cellos were passionate in the slow movement, allowing Simon Fuchs (oboe) and Mike Reid (clarinet) the two main principals to stand out. The final movement had plenty of swagger and exuberance, and after its life-affirming conclusion, Grimaud was applauded at length.

Paavo Järvi’s command of Bruckner was not news to me, I had heard excellent reports of his time in Frankfurt where he performed plenty of fine Bruckner symphonies with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony (Hessischer Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester).

Neither Bruckner nor his Seventh Symphony need any introduction. The use of four Wagner tubas (placed separately from the ‘main’ horn section) reminds us that Bruckner revered Wagner, who died half way through the composition of the Adagio so that Bruckner quickly added the Wagner tubas with a suitable funereal theme, adding some appropriate words at the top of the page.

The transparent acoustics at the newly renovated Tonhalle proved ideal for such a symphony, with its wide dynamic range, and I was frequently almost deafened by the brass onslaught; Järvi did not hold back. I like it that way. The emotional heart of the whole work (thankfully not omitted) is where the cymbal crashes, near the end of the slow movement – this was most effectively executed. Järvi skilfully varied his tempi throughout and highlighted many small details.

The cello and viola sections opened the first movement to perfection, before Järvi slowly but surely built up the exciting climax. The Coda was thrilling, and loud. Järvi never dragged his feet in the slow movement, and the quartet of Wagner horns (led by Mischa Greull) were exemplary. The Scherzo was suitably jaunty in the outer sections: a principal to be mentioned here, Simon Styles in his last season as tuba principal, literally shone with not one but three gleaming tubas. The clarion trumpet calls by Philippe Litzler were also spot on.

The Tonhalle vibrated with the force of the final movement, Christian Hartmann saw to that with impressive timpani rolls. There was hardly a cough throughout the performance, one tiny advantage of the pandemic perhaps; a relief too, as the performance was recorded, no doubt for an eventual boxed set of Bruckner symphonies.

It seems not long ago that I could only dream, after hearing small works with a much reduced audience, of once again hearing a major Bruckner symphony with a full – albeit partially masked – orchestra and a full house. ‘Near normal’ is round the corner.

At the end of the symphony, one heard many in the audience loudly exhale through their masks – in deep satisfaction. The Swiss do not normally roar their approval but plenty in the audience then did, rightly so.

In my book, Järvi now joins a list of illustrious, highly competent Bruckner conductors including (in no particular order) Günter Wand, Eugen Jochum, Bernard Haitink, Claudio Abbado and Herbert von Karajan, all of whom I have had the privilege of having heard in this repertoire. I shall be buying Järvi’s boxed set.

John Rhodes

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