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Seen and Heard Prom Review

 

Prom 59: Wagner, Beethoven, Richard Strauss; Emanuel Ax (piano), Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, David Zinman (conductor): Prom 59: Royal Albert Hall, 29 August 2005 (AR).

 

David Zinman, in his tenth season as Music Director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, opened this all German prom with a refreshingly breezy and lithe performance of Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture. This was a beautifully balanced interpretation with every member of the orchestra giving their all to the music. The Tonhalle does not have a deep or heavily ‘German’ accented sound but is closer in timbre to French orchestras giving this Wagner a freshly minted, leaner textured sound.

 

The highlight of the evening however was an extraordinarily sensitive and poetic account of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor played by Emanuel Ax. Zinman rightly adopted an ‘authentic’ (reduced)  Beethoven-sized orchestra, complete with kettledrums which came off particularly well in the first and last movements with their military inflections. Ax plays this work with a delicate stylisation and lightness of touch, more akin to Mozart than Beethoven, an approach that seems highly appropriate because this was the last of Beethoven’s concerti modelled structurely on those of Mozart. In the Allegro con brio Ax played in perfect dialogue with the orchestra,so that an intimate conversation seemed to flow to and fro between them. What was so unusual in this performance was Ax and the orchestras’ deliberately low-key and subdued approach: never once 'playing to the gallery' for exaggerated effect. Ax’s tone was refined and delicate throughout, his fragile notes seeming to melt on the ear.

 

The Largo was particularly moving, Ax’s noble reserve and floating phrasing producing notes of profound poignancy: this was playing of absolute purity of tone and perfection of phrasing and once again Zinman and the orchestra gave him sensitive support, in total rapport with the mesmerising mood of the music. When Ax switched mood and metre in the Rondo: Allegro – Presto with such sprightly touch and playful buoyancy that the notes sounded almost improvised, the accompanying trumpets and timpani responded with highly dramatic impact. The audience rightly went into rapturous applause for soloist, conductor and orchestra after this truly paradigmatic performance.

After such an inspiring first part, Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra proved to be somewhat of an anti-climax. The Sunrise began badly when the opening sustained organ note was distorted by a mechanical rattling fault and the accompanying timpani strokes lacked conviction and power; not at all a good springboard for what can be a riveting experience.

 

Worse was to come. The following sections, Of the Backworldsmen and Of the Great Longing, lacked their usual sensuous passion and sense of yearning, with the strings sounding meagre and under nourished. Of Science and Learning felt flat footed and far too dragged out with Zinman apparently attempting to get his players to play both impossibly quietly and slowly, resulting in a break in musical line and concentration. By some considerable contrast, The Convalescent section was far more successful and in which brass and percussion played with bite and precision at the climax. The accompanying organ was in much better form too.

 

After this too brief interlude, The Dance Song was let down by sour-sounding trumpet solos and woodwind which lacked the chirpy pointedness required of them. The all-important solo violin parts, played by leader Primoz Novsak, seemed scrawny and lacking in lilting grace. Neither song nor dancing could flow since Zinman’s stiff and stodgy conducting seemed devoid of rhythmic buoyancy or grace. And where the conclusion of this section should have sounded overwhelming, voluptuous and passionate, here it was merely noisy with the tubular bells and percussion sounding merely garish and far too loud.

 

The concluding section, Night Wanderer’s Song fared no better. It felt like a run through that musically went for nothing, totally lacking as it was in any sense of the mystery of a journey into the end of the night. This uninspired and, in parts, apparently under rehearsed performance was given respectful rather than heartfelt applause. It deserved nothing better.

 

For his encore Zinman conducted an exhilarating performance of William Walton’s Crown Imperial: A Coronation March (1937) - redeeming the lacklustre Zarathustra more than a little and providing a satisfying ending to a curate's egg concert.

 

 

 

Alex Russell

 

 

Further listening:

 

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37; Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 "Emperor"; Piano Sonata No. 24 in F# Major, Op. 78; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110; Claudio Arrau (piano) Philharmonia Orchestra , Otto Klemperer (conductor): Testament SBT 1351 73:06.

 

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Sinfonia Domestica; Wiener Philharmoniker, Lorin Maazel (conductor): Deutsche  Grammophon Masters: 445 560-2.

 

Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel; New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Leonard Bernstein (conductor): Sony Royal Edition: 47626.

 

 

 

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