This packed-house concert saw
the Proms debuts of both conductor David Zinman and Zurich’s Tonhalle
Orchestra. Founded in 1868, it is the oldest orchestra in Switzerland
and many of the last century’s most inspired conductors have worked
with them, including Richard Strauss, Mengelberg, Kempe, and Klemperer.
Their concert opened with a refreshing,
chamber-like account of Richard Strauss’ Don Juan; an ideal score
to show off an internationally renowned symphony orchestra which the
Zurich undoubtedly is. What shone through was a clarity of orchestral
textures where every member of the orchestra could be consistently heard.
The strings had a wonderfully delicate and translucent sound, whilst
the brass had an unusual lightness and grace. Zinman paced the work
to perfection, with the reflective passages being mellow and sedate,
with some notably sensitive woodwind solos. Often the climactic moments
can sound merely bombastic but here they were both wonderfully transparent
After this wonderful performance
what followed was a profoundly disappointing account of Sir Edward Elgar’s
Cello Concerto in E minor Op. 35. Yo-Yo Ma’s opening passages sounded
curiously etiolated, whilst the orchestra sounded rather non-committed,
a token presence, with woodwind unfocused and slack strings. On occasion,
Yo-Yo Ma’s tone sounded rather bland and neither the Lento nor
the Adagio had the essential poignancy and passion: he tended
to play down the emotions, adopting a suave and emollient style.
Throughout there was something
consciously contrived about this anaesthetized reading, as if Yo-Yo
Ma was deliberately inverting his friend and colleague Jacqueline Du
Pré’s paradigm performances by offering a totally objective interpretation
of the work, as opposed to Du Pré’s totally subjective, impassioned
approach. There was none of the risk-taking of Du Pré, who frequently
produced bitter and harsh playing during the heat of the more passionate
passages, almost as if the music was being wrenched from her.
By total contrast, Yo-Yo Ma was
all ease and technique. With Zinman’s sluggish tempi and the cellist’s
own playing sounding out of focus this was a performance that simply
never ignited or caught the imagination.
The performance of Musorgsky’s
Pictures at an Exhibition was largely pedestrian. The opening promenade
seemed to sleep walk, whilst Gnome was heavy handed and A
Medieval Castle flat-footed; Tuileries lacked any playful
characterisation, with the woodwind not nearly pointed or aggressive
enough. Bydlo was let down by an appallingly out-of- tune tuba
solo, and the cellos, double-bases and timpani just lacked attack: this
music should sound menacing - there was certainly none here.
The Ballet of the Unhatched
Chicks never did hatch, with the woodwinds again lacking focus and
wit, although the conducting was a bit more sprightly here. Samuel
Goldenberg and Schmuyle was more successful with the shrill muted
solo trumpet having a characteristically ‘Yiddish’ accent accompanied
by powerfully cutting double basses. Zinman seemed to come to life in
The Market with the music having flare and buoyancy. The best
playing came with Catacombs with Ravel’s ‘brass masses’ taking
on a solemn but intoxicating sound, especially the velvety trombones.
The most disappointing of all
the pictures was The Hut on Hen’s Legs which had no real intensity,
the timpani and bass drum especially being barely present and the conductor
creating zero drama. Even the concluding Gate of Kiev, which
is usually proof against the vagaries of orchestra or conductor, was
laboured and anti-climactic.
This was a lightweight reading
of one of the most popular War Horses in the classical repertoire, and
of course the largely uncritical Promenade audience gave it rapturous
applause. They were rewarded with a graceful gesture by way of an encore
- a superbly spirited performance of Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance
March No 4 which was far better conducted and played than the Pictures…if
only we could have had all of the Elgar marches instead…. but that would
have been to pre-empt the Last Night high jinks.