Prom 71 – Zurich Tonhalle

Don Juan, Op.20
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85
Mussorgsky orch. Ravel
Pictures at an Exhibition

Yo-Yo Ma (cello)

Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich
David Zinman

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 11 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

As this year’s Proms season approaching its finale it seems as if some of the best wine had been kept for last. The Zurich Tonhalle is Switzerland’s oldest orchestra. Founded in 1868, it plays in what is acoustically one of the world’s great concert halls, a modest-sized gem, which I urge readers to visit. Among its great guest-conductors have been Furtwängler, Klemperer, Ansermet and Kubelik; and more recently, Sanderling, Brüggen, Haitink and Sawallisch. David Zinman has been at the helm since 1995 and has recently extended his contract until 2007. The Zurich Tonhalle may not be in the orchestral super-league but the benefits to an orchestra of working regularly in a great hall with major conductors over an extended period were on display at this Prom.

For most of the packed audience, one suspects that the Elgar concerto with Yo-Yo Ma was the main draw. However, all three courses were almost equally good (and this is not to forget two encores – one from Ma and a further one from the orchestra).

Don Juan was crisp, classical, understated maybe. Zinman’s interpretation played to the orchestra’s strengths of internal balance and integration, and effectively minimised any slight lack of depth in the string sound. Much care had been lavished on detail. One noticed, in particular, the unusually careful preparation of the music’s joins – for example, the cellos and basses leading into the famous oboe theme, which was beautifully played. The initial reserve paid off as we approached the climax, the screw effectively tightening and the whole moving up a gear to the great horn call. Strauss was a great Mozart conductor, greatly preferring understatement and classical poise in the conducting of his own music; one can imagine him approving thoroughly of Zinman’s clear, unfussy and supremely professional view.

Yo-Yo Ma strode on to a massive ovation and launched into the Elgar almost before one had time to draw breath. This most quintessential Elgar played by a French-born Chinese cellist domiciled in America accompanied by Switzerland’s oldest orchestra conducted by an American protege of Monteux! Why not? It was Hans Richter and Richard Strauss (Germans) who were among the first to recognise Elgar’s genius – and this year in London we have been treated to a resoundingly fine performance of the Violin Concerto from Midori (Japanese) conducted by Mehta (Indian). It is a cause for rejoicing that Elgar now belongs to the world, not just the English (I write as a Scot). A generation ago there was a recognisable Elgar tradition amongst English orchestras, and there were things that even a less than great British band would do instinctively when playing Elgar which no Continental or American orchestra could quite replicate. No longer, one suspects, given the internationalisation of orchestral life.

Yo-Yo Ma may not command the grandest of cello sounds and is sometimes accused of blandness. However, he clearly loves the simple act of making music “with other musicians” and the really remarkable thing about this performance was the self-evident level of interplay with orchestra and conductor, which one encounters all too rarely. This was emphatically not just about a soloist who happened to have a good conductor as accompanist. It went deeper than that with the orchestra’s complete absorption in its task ensuring a performance that had the quality of the very best chamber music.

Ma’s fined-down gossamer sound was turned to particular advantage not just in the Scherzo, despatched with the wistful nonchalant verve expected, but also in the opening movement where the subdued dynamic levels and lack of heroics allowed for details one has never heard before. The emotional heart of the concerto is the dreamlike ’Adagio’. Like a great actor Ma held us in the palm of his hand, compelling several thousand people to hold their collective breath. Was it art concealing art, an illusion without substance? I don’t know, but it worked. For once the finale seemed all of a piece with what had gone before, its slightly understated march somehow sounding less jingoistic than usual and leading back more naturally to the soloist’s final reverie. This was wholly remarkable as an exploration of the work’s special interior world.

Pictures at an Exhibition was equally remarkable and revelatory in a wholly different sense. We have become so used to Pictures being treated as an orchestral showpiece that we tend to underestimate its essential seriousness. Mussorgsky’s piano original was, after all, written in only three weeks under intense emotion as a monument, an elegy, for his dead friend, the artist and architect, Viktor Hartmann. So it came as a welcome shock to hear the music treated as the great piece it undoubtedly is – on this occasion the linking ’Promenades’ were just as important as the ’Pictures’ themselves. Intense care was lavished on each, demonstrating how different one is from the next, and mirroring (as they do) the emotions generated by having viewed the previous picture.

This was a leisurely visit to the gallery, nothing rushed, not even in the faster pieces, everything fully enunciated and characterised. The quality of orchestral playing was for the most part resplendent – maybe the tuba had a little difficulty in keeping up in his solo in ’Bydlo’, but even that had a musical point as the player reached for the ultimate in tuba crescendos; it is worth noting that first horn is of exceptional quality.

The four final pictures led inexorably one to another, building up as a single sweeping tableau, including a ’Catacombs’ of astounding resonant focus, and a ’Great Gate of Kiev’ which was allowed the most unforced culmination capped by a spectacularly large bell. It takes a very good conductor indeed, one with real patience and maturity, to generate this kind of momentum.

Of the two encores, Yo-Yo Ma played the ’Sarabande’ from Bach’s C minor Suite (BWV1011) as if mesmerised; to close we were treated to a deliciously airborne Pomp and Circumstance March No.4 – more Elgar. When the big tune returned in all its glory, Zinman half-turned to conduct the demob-happy Prommers.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Saturday 13 September at 2.00 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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