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S & H Prom Review

PROM 71: R.Strauss, Elgar, Musorgsky (orch. Ravel); Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Tonhalle Orchestra, Zürich; David Zinman (conductor); Royal Albert Hall; 12th September, 2003 (AR)


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 and emphatic.

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.

Alex Russell

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