Friday, January 22, 2021
Konzertsaal Tonhalle Maag, Zürich, Switzerland
In the midst of high-profile cancellations, starved of music-making these past months, hungry to get back, the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich under its music director Paavo Järvi mustered strong forces and familiar faces for this Tchaikovsky webcast.
Common to all three works in the programme was traditional material. Russian/Danish in the D-major Coronation March written for the instalment of Alexander III (1883, premiered under Taneyev, recalling the Imperial Hymn of 1812 and Marche slave); Russian in the First Symphony (1874 revision); Latin in the Capriccio Italien (1880). Järvi’s grandiose take on the March was robust, mindful of pomp without exaggeration, all departments of the orchestra (virus-tested, masked, distanced, separate stands, antiphonal violins, cellos and violas to left and right of twelve o’clock) given an opportunity to flex and shine, the final unison notably imposing in quality and sign-off. The Capriccio sauntered its familiar way, rich in string tone and brass weighting, the woodwind solos shaped and eloquent, the simplest musical gestures and cadences invested with narrative depth, no speed too extreme. Italy from the perspective of a mimosa-scented summer day, less parade-ground focussed than lyrically embracing.
“Snow swept the world from end to end. A candle burned on the table” – Pasternak … Conceived during a period of nervous disorder, insomnia and hallucinations, generally after dark, the First Symphony, mined in part from earlier compositions, occupied Tchaikovsky for almost a decade, giving him no end of misgivings, heart-ache and feelings of inadequacy. Yet he retained a soft spot for what he’d written. “Despite all its huge shortcomings, I still nourish a weakness for it … a sin of my sweet youth […] In many respects it is very immature, although fundamentally it is still richer in content than many of my other, more mature works.” ‘Winter Daydreams’ he called it, subtitling the first two movements “Daydreams of a Winter Journey” and “Land of Gloom, Land of Mist”. If a descriptive, extramural programme lay within, he never said. Beyond possible (vague) folk allusions in the Finale relating to flowers or a young girl, the mystery remains. But as a “winter” work it reached the public. And a “winter” tale it remains. G-minor angst, G minor regret. “A January day was drawing to its close; the evening cold pierced keenly through the motionless air” – Turgenev …
Distant Alps, the sun long dropped “out of sight behind the hills west of the lake” (Charif Shanahan). Snow on the ground, houses still with their Christmas lights, fires burning in grates. Within the hall an orchestra in its stride, responsive to Järvi’s expectations, the players’ appreciation making up for the absence of an audience, a week of rehearsals and recording behind them, Alpha’s microphones and production crew on hand to the end. Averaging forty-three minutes (both on this occasion and in 2012 with his old Frankfurt band), Järvi, contrasting/questioning the brisk forty of his father Neeme in Gothenburg, stands broadly with Jansons and Fedoseyev in this music. Fifty-plus years ago, quicker overall, Maazel and Markevitch proposed a variety of phrased tempo fluctuations without the progressive rush Gergiev has since come to instil. Svetlanov in Moscow adjusted his account between forty-two minutes (1967) and forty-eight (1993). Karajan, Bernstein, Rostropovich favoured the forty-five mark.
Taking advantage of Idagio’s catch-up facility reinforced the solidarity of Järvi’s reading. Things like the barely murmured tremolando at the start provided the perfect backdrop for the flute and bassoon entry. Throughout he made the most of Tchaikovsky’s tensioned transitions, easing back the pulse to turn implication into sepulchred theatre. Time and again, living the 1918 words of Maximilian Rudwin, Polish-American “scholar of the fantastic”, he walked us through the “Valley of Shadow … overwhelmed by a wealth of woe … steeped in gloom … [Russia’s] heaven-rending cry of anguish.” Gem of the night was the E-flat Adagio, luxuriantly expressive and sculpted, followed by the Scherzo, so many of Tchaikovsky’s deft later orchestral touches arrayed before us. Challenge accepted, everyone went for the fugato entries of the Finale. With so many fine players and pedigree section principals in the Tonhalle, two especially held the attention. Sabine Poyé Morel (flute), Simon Fuchs (oboe). Cultured artists of supreme sound and delivery, the most conversationally refined interaction. A joy to experience.