Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra

The Flying Dutchman – Overture
Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30

Emanuel Ax (piano)

Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich
David Zinman

Reviewed by: Evan Dickerson

Reviewed: 29 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Swiss have long held efficiency and precision as watchwords of their character. In musical terms the Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich under its chief conductor David Zinman has taken these qualities to heart, too, as has been documented by distinctive recorded cycles of Beethoven, Schumann and Richard Strauss.

To start, the overture to Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” which provided evidence of the orchestra’s quality across all departments – biting brass and timpani, surging strings, that brought the seascape vividly to life, and slightly tart woodwinds that only in tutti passages became slightly swamped. Zinman’s reading was typically forthright and compelling.

A marked contrast followed with the minor-key emotions of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. Zinman and the Tonhalle having just released a recording of the work (with Yefim Bronfman) might reasonably have been expected to produce an assured reading, and to an extent they did, demonstrating cohesion in the outer movements. Due gravitas was given in the expansive opening that turned to more intimate playing as things progressed.

The middle movement, in many ways the heart of the piece, proved problematic. Emanuel Ax’s solo introduction came across uncertainly and with snatched-at phrasing that transferred to the orchestra, from which point it never fully recovered. The final movement, however, displayed jewel-like Mozartian precision, particularly notable being the interplay between clarinet and bassoon that almost relegated the piano part to accompaniment. As was the case in the first movement, the cadenzas scored by Beethoven and dating from 1808, graphically illustrate how different his soundworld had become since completing the concerto some eight years earlier. Ax appeared more in his element in the more demonstrative moments, though produced delicacy too when required.

Richard Strauss’s mighty tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, freely adapted after Nietzsche, is a gargantuan beast characterising man’s journey of ascent in self-awareness towards the ‘superman’, was altogether of a more urgent quality. Keen to delve deep beyond the now infamous ‘Sunrise’ (and “2001”) opening in which the Royal Albert Hall organ blasted forth after some rather wheezy opening moments, Zinman plunged headlong into the work.

The orchestra responded with precision augmented by a degree of exuberance that gave the work a much-needed questing quality and epitomised that Nature and her believers are central to Man’s evolutionary awareness. Strauss carefully poises this contrast between Nature and Man as he revels in the notable Wagnerian references that Nietzsche’s source allowed him to build upon. The Zurich Tonhalle brought out these aspects without undue highlighting, preferring to give coherence to the whole. Telling contributions from brass and organ were balanced by supple, almost Viennese-style violin solos and characterful woodwinds. Strauss’s final statement – the reappearance of Nature, despite Man’s greater awareness – was poignantly given.

William Walton’s Crown Imperial, written for the 1937 coronation, was given as an encore.

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