Monumental Bruckner Eighth from Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Hosokawa, Bruckner: Emmanuel Pahud (flute), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich / Paavo Järvi (conductor). Tonhalle, Zurich, 15.9.2022. (JR)

Emmanuel Pahud, Toshio Hosokawa and Paavo Järvi © Gaëtan Bally

HosokawaCeremony for flute and orchestra
Bruckner – Symphony No.8

The 154th Tonhalle Orchestra season opened with this splendid concert.

Creative Chair this season is the Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa, who was commissioned by the orchestra and the Orchestra Ensemble Kanazawa to compose a work which received its world première on the opening night of the season. The work entitled Ceremony is dedicated to Emmanuel Pahud, the supreme Swiss-French flautist (he was taken on as principal flute at the Berlin Philharmonic at the tender age of 22, a post he still holds some 30 years later.) Pahud is ‘Focus Artist’ at the Tonhalle this season.

Ceremony depicts musically the rituals of the Japanese shaman, a person regarded as having access to the spirit world. The soloist represents the shaman, the orchestra the world at large. The shaman sends out his voice, in this work through the flute. There is therefore much breathing into the instrument as well as traditional playing. Melodies evoke Japan, but with an avant-garde Western influence. There is no doubting Pahud’s technique and his prowess on the instrument – indeed, he continually swaps between three instruments during the 20-minute-long piece, flute, alto flute and piccolo. Most of the five sections are reflective in nature, the orchestra playing a vigorous part in the central section; the penultimate section is a selection of cadenzas, the final part is perhaps the most appealing, moving, with the flute fading away to tinkling percussion (finger cymbals) and celeste.

Bruckner’s majestic, mighty Eighth Symphony filled the second half of this concert. Paavo Järvi is recording an entire cycle, which ensured recording quality of performance (pity a harp string snapped very noisily in one of the movements, but thankfully there will be three performances to choose from). BBC Music Magazine recently compiled a list of what 150 leading conductors and reviewers considered the world’s greatest symphonies: Bruckner’s Seventh came in at number 20; his Eighth came in at number 13. I would not quibble with those rankings. The work is almost too grandiose, too monumental for the jewel box of the Tonhalle, and Järvi did not hold back the decibels. The work has to pack a punch, and it did. Järvi pointed accents especially in the woodwind and horns; the latter ably led by both Ivo Gass and Mischa Greull (who was leading the Wagner tubas, which are not tubas at all, but horns of a different shape).

Järvi chose quite a slow tempo for the opening and closing movements, for maximum impact. Some may prefer more of a rhythmic pulse, but Järvi went for details and muscle, which made the work sinister at times, contrasting with the more positive sections. During the sombre Adagio I could not help thinking of the images of Queen Elizabeth II lying in state at Westminster Hall before her funeral ceremony next week. The huge climax of the movement with double cymbal clash was ably preceded by the trombones of David Bruchez-Lalli and Seth Quistad; Mike Reid’s fine clarinet playing also deserves mention.

In the Finale we were thrilled by the timpanist, Benjamin Forster. The whole brass section were simply majestic, Järvi maintaining his grasp of the whole structure despite the frequent stop-starts in the score; it all made complete musical sense.

A great start to what promises to be a great season.

John Rhodes

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