Friday, September 04, 2020

Lockdown easing in Switzerland with Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

Seen and Heard International
John Rodes
21.08.2020

In Switzerland, as from 1October, public gatherings of over 1,000 will be permitted, as long as social distancing can be maintained; that still does not make life easy for concert management. Meanwhile we wait patiently for large-scale works to be possible with a full house, and must make do, for this calendar year at least, with somewhat reduced works played to a reduced audience. This concert managed to feature a fairly large orchestra, all with their own music stands; only one player wore a mask. The entire audience (about half the hall) wore masks and every second seat was left vacant. The indoor bar was closed, there was one, however, outside. Programmes were online and had to be viewed or printed in advance. There was no interval.

Mozart was a mere 18 when he wrote his 29th Symphony (he was eight when he wrote his First); the 29th Symphony is something of a turning point in his musical achievement. I join the number of music-lovers (who include Glenn Gould) who do not think everything Mozart composed was a great work, although if one considers his age when composing, there is no doubt, of course, of his prodigious talent. The symphonies up to No.29 are, by and large, fairly pleasing easy-going works but not compositions which, to my mind, bear repeated listening. Mozart composed his 29th Symphony in 1774 in Salzburg but presented it in Vienna ten years later as a new work, himself realising the value and novelty of his early composition. It is one of the few symphonies he chose to conduct himself, so he clearly thought highly of it. Alfred Einstein is said to have recognised its chamber music clarity. The Viennese public quickly acclaimed the work as a masterpiece.

Järvi deftly juxtaposed the gentle, elegant sections with the energetic, joyous passages; there were many light touches to be enjoyed. Many of the orchestral players had smiles on their faces as they played, always a good sign. The second movement impressed with the beauty of the muted string section, the third bounced along gleefully. The Finale, Allegro con spirito, lit up the hall with its spectacular string displays over two octaves, so-called ‘Mannheim rockets’, glistening like fireworks.


Paavo Järvi and Lisa Batiashvili

Bartók’s First Violin Concerto stems from 1908, but it took a curious 50 years to reach its first performance, in Basel under the baton of Paul Sacher. It took another 40 years for the Tonhalle Orchestra to perform it. It was written for a violinist Stefi Geyer, born in Hungary, who married a Swiss composer Water Schulthess in 1920. The score of the concerto vanished until after Geyer’s death; apparently Geyer had told Sacher where to find the score. The work is a declaration of love and the ‘Stefi motif’ pervades the work. The first movement Andante sostenuto, after a gloomy opening, is tender, perhaps suggesting unrequited love, but then blossoms into quite a passionate love affair; the movement ends with exceptional beauty. The second movement, an Allegro giocoso, has elements of a Scherzo and symphonic character. It gives the soloist the chance to show off their virtuosic talents, as Lisa Batiashvili did in this performance with considerable aplomb. Discordant notes were attacked with ease and relish. This concerto is an absorbing work, full of interest, and now seems to be performed quite regularly and rightfully after its long absence.

The concert ended with some entertaining Ibert, his Divertissement. It is a work from the late 1920s with links to the ballet scores of Stravinsky and Satie, and reminiscent of Malcolm Arnold. As one expects from Ibert, there are plenty of cheeky moments where the orchestra, conductor and the audience could giggle.

The work has six movements. An Introduction with piano which is a fun romp; a funeral cortège with celesta to lift the spirits; a Nocturne which parodies Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’ from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream; a delicate waltz (some wonderful slides on the trombone from David Bruchez-Lalli), a jaunty military march and finally the well-known Cadenza with crashing chords from the piano and a scamper to the close, complete with whistle, played by the conductor. He was shown a red card by a member of the percussion section but thankfully stayed on stage to the end.

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