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S & H International Concert Review

Honegger, Mozart, & Strauss, Tonhalle Orchestra, David Zinman, conductor, Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, Verizon Hall, Philadelphia, May 2, 2004 (BJ)

Honegger: Pastorale d"été
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat Major, K. 271
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben

In some quarters it may well have been considered foolhardy, rather than merely heroic, for a Swiss orchestra not widely credited with front-rank status to bring Richard Strauss’s Hero’s Life to Philadelphia in the course of its 2004 US tour. In Philadelphia, after all, Wolfgang Sawallisch very recently served for a decade as the resident orchestra’s music director; and in the eyes of many local music lovers, encouraged by the unwavering encomiums of the city’s press, Sawallisch enjoys the reputation of World’s Top Strauss Conductor.

Well, I have no wish to question the German maestro’s dedication to Strauss’s music, which indeed he has championed in a manner both determined and at times highly convincing. But in my judgment Zürich’s Tonhalle Orchestra, under the baton of the American conductor now in his ninth season as its music director, gave us on this occasion a realization of Heldenleben superior to anything I have heard from Sawallisch in this or related repertoire.

I am not suggesting that the Tonhalle is, player for player, a better orchestra than the Philadelphia, or even perhaps its equal, though the Swiss ensemble played throughout this concert with a quite wonderful zest and polish. The tone of the strings, underpinned by a double-bass group of exceptional strength and clarity, is not a fat sound, which would hardly match David Zinman’s interpretative tastes. But it is lustrous and refined in the extreme, and all the other sections of the orchestra, from piquant upper woodwinds to adroit percussions and massively assured trombones and tubas, contributed to a consistently cultivated whole, enhanced by some superb horn solos–in Honegger’s charming curtain-raiser as well as in the Strauss–and impeccable work from concertmaster Primoz Novsak in Heldenleben’s extended depiction of the latter composer’s mercurial wife.

More important, however, than the technical qualities of the orchestra was the sweep and grandeur of Zinman’s musical conception. My problem with Sawallisch’s Strauss has always been what I experience as a want of amplitude, of sheer luxuriance, not so much in the sound as in the phrasing. For example, in Also sprach Zarathustra, which Sawallisch performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra just a month earlier, despite all the merits of interpretation and execution, I found an unwillingness to let this supremely spacious music really expand–there was, as too often happens when he conducts Strauss, a sense that musical points are being made just a fraction too quickly, that things are happening too soon. By contrast, it was Zinman’s unhurried pacing, his ability, without any detriment to the forward impulse of the work as a whole, to draw out every phrase to its full breadth in the manner of classic bel canto–think, as a parallel, of Kreisler in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto–that I found most thrilling in this characteristically insightful reading. It was the perfect blend of exuberance with repose.

An equally graceful and stylish collaboration in Mozart’s Ninth Piano Concerto with Leif Ove Andsnes–a pianist whose gifts are rivaled by hardly any of his contemporaries–added to the pleasures of the afternoon. Perhaps it is regrettable for Americans that Zinman, now 67, seems to have decided that directing an orchestra in his native country is not an activity that he can reconcile with his stimulating penchant for musical and what might be called musico-social exploration; he left his most recent American post, in Baltimore, a few years ago. But he has evidently found a congenial orchestral home in Zürich, where he is pioneering such activities as a series titled "Tonhalle Late"–concerts starting at 10 p.m., followed by drinks and dancing till 4 in the morning, that pack the hall with what, in a recent interview, he called "a fantastic audience" in the 17 to 25 age-bracket. So I suppose we should not begrudge his very special talents to a city that clearly appreciates them, but content ourselves with welcoming him as a frequent visitor who brings something refreshingly individual back to America’s more convention-bound orchestral life.

Bernard Jacobson


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