Virtuosic Dvořák from Gil Shaham, stirring Sibelius from Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Dvořák, Sibelius: Gil Shaham (violin), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 2.4.2022. (JR)

Gil Shaham (c) Chris Lee

Dvořák – Violin Concerto, Op.53
Sibelius – Symphony No.2, Op.43

Joshua Bell was to have been the star soloist in the Dvořák Violin Concerto but sadly he was indisposed; it says a great deal about the persuasive powers of Paavo Järvi and the management of the Tonhalle Orchestra that they were able to secure, at what must have been short notice, the services of no one less than Gil Shaham for this run of concerts. This was some replacement!

Shaham beams whenever not playing and you cannot help but be drawn to the man. His joyous, rather impish character lightens the mood and his sparkling technique is simply stunning. Minute inaudible preparations are made for main entries to ensure spot-on intonation; tricky double-stopping and fast passages are made to look easy and natural. When not playing, Shaham – somewhat of a visual distraction – virtually conducts the piece with every bone and sinew of his body. He is wholly integrated with the work.

Neither Järvi nor Shaham attempted to impose their own interpretation on this most delightful concerto; it was rustic when the piece demanded it, tempi were always so that you did not notice them, just as it should be. Playing his 1719 Stradivarius violin, Shaham’s tone was gloriously warm and refined. Järvi and the orchestra took a back seat, all eyes and ears were on this star soloist. In the last movement, one’s ear was, however, caught by the fine flute of Matvey Demin and Mischa Greull, principal horn. We all beamed at the end, the orchestra were similarly enthralled. We were rewarded, by way of an encore and contrast, with a Bach Rondo and Gavotte, complete with some witty embellishments.

Shaham will be in the UK (London and Leicester) this week with the Philharmonia to play the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto; catch him if you can.

Sibelius composed his Second Symphony in Italy, first in Rapallo, then Rome, yet one thinks one hears more of the frozen North than the warmth of Italy. He composed the work at a time when Tsar Nicholas II was imposing sanctions on Finland, forbidding the use of their language and culture. The symphony was to give the Finns hope in spite of the political chaos. It became a symbol for Finnish freedom from the Russian yoke and turned Sibelius into their National Composer. The Andante in particular was seen as a devastating protest against Russia’s misdeeds, which, as one commentator put it at the time, threatened to take the light out of the sun.

As Ukrainian flags fluttered above the Town Hall and along the lakeside, Järvi sported on his lapel a ribbon in the colours of the flag of Ukraine, signalling his sympathy for the underdog. Järvi cannot have known how apt this work would turn out to be when it was first programmed. One’s thoughts in this gripping performance (especially during that gut-wrenching Andante) were, naturally, with the downtrodden people of the Ukraine.

This orchestra has no very long tradition in performing the Sibelius symphonies; under David Zinman and Lionel Bringuier they were relative rarities. With his Estonian background and upbringing, Paavo Järvi has, of course, exactly the right pedigree to grasp the entire Nordic experience.

In the opening Allegretto the quartet of horns impressed. The string playing throughout was exceptionally deep and lush; the slow movement in particular was heartfelt. The opening sinister mood portending a potential catastrophe immediately made one think of the many disturbing images we see on our screens from Ukraine.

The first part of the third movement was fast and furious, giving way to the slow second section in which Rafael Rosenfeld (cello) and Simon Fuchs (oboe) stood out. We went almost imperceptibly into the final movement. Järvi built up the climaxes gradually, again and again. The trombone section led by David Bruchez-Lalli roused the orchestra to end the piece in an optimistic blaze of glory.

Järvi is clearly passionate about the piece. It will certainly prove to have been a highlight of my musical year. With Paavo Järvi now firmly at the helm of the orchestra, we much look forward to more stirring Sibelius in seasons to come.

John Rhodes

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