Wednesday, September 15, 2021 

Tonhalle, Claridenstrasse 7, 8002 Zürich, Switzerland  

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

The room by the lake. To a design by Helmer and Fellner, late Habsburg Europe’s most celebrated master builders, inaugurated by Brahms in October 1895, conducting his D-major Triumphlied. Renovated, along with the adjoining conference centre, during the past four years, stripped of its formerly grey décor and restored to the painted ceiling, lustrous rose pillars and gilded splendour of its original state, complete with new organ. Home to the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, founded in 1868 under Friedrich Hegar. Succeeding a distinguished line of chief and guest conductors – the former including Volkmar Andreae, Hans Rosbaud, Rudolf Kempe, Christoph Eschenbach, and David Zinman, the latter Böhm, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Kubelík, Schuricht, Walter – Paavo Järvi took up the reins in October 2019, pre-pandemic. Attending his opening concert – Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony in the orchestra’s then interim base, the modern MAAG Tonhalle – I noted that the occasion was about statement, history and the wider picture, about returning before long to the larger Tonhalle’s landmark ambience, acoustic and atmosphere. “Playing the hall” like a matured instrumentarium, the vibration of stage flooring shared with audience, excited his imagination. “You can build a new hall, but not an old one.”

Inaugurations are troublesome things to plan. In resisting the populist road while acknowledging its legacy – Beethoven’s Consecration of the House, Ninth Symphony – Järvi’s Mahler Three was a stroke of brilliance. An eternally great Wunderhorn canvas completed in 1895-96 among the alpine hills and waters, the sun, shadows and stars of Steinbach am Attersee, exactly contemporary with the first season of the Tonhalle on Claridenstrasse. A Symphony, his once assistant Bruno Walter recalled in 1941, in which “with a feeling of reassurance [Mahler] looks out upon nature, runs the rounds of its circles, and finishes in the happy awareness that it is ‘almighty love that forms all things and preserves all things’.” The two parts, six movements and multifarious subsections of the work “mirror the whole world”, Mahler declared. “One is, so to speak, only an instrument, played on by the universe.” Alles für alle Männer.  

This was an emotionally searing account, imperially conceptualised. Järvi held together the enormous 875-bar structure of the first part magnificently, each gesture and contrast, colour and silence, at its appointed place in time. He illumined vast frescoes of nobility, sadness, longing, spirituality, love, physical urgency, the glowing resonance of the hall trembling his every understanding and intention, from D-minor funerals and “orgiastic, corybantic march” (Hans Redlich), through murmured caress and fevered cry, to spectacular D-major exaltation. “Nature in its totality rings and resounds.” It proved an eloquent, enduring ninety-five-minute journey. Certain aspects stood out exceptionally, gripping the senses. The elevated refinement of Mahler’s orchestration, for example, along with his repeatedly minimal use of maximum forces, the impact of sound and texture, subsidiary latticework, heightened through a low decibel count. Two movements I shall keep with me. The distant posthorn solo of the third (looking back to the still-born Blumine cameo of the First Symphony), shaped and accompanied with an ethereal beauty, perfection and high poetry piercingly painful. Rumination and story-telling, echoes and soul shivers. And the celestial voices, mellow contralto, and magically dying cadence of the fifth, the “Bimm bamm” bell chorus with its old words and Fourth Symphony “Das himmlische Leben” foreshadowing (Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Ladies of the Zürcher Sing-Akademie, and the Zürcher Sängerknaben – the sailor-suited bright-eyed young faces of the latter surely unlikely ever to forget the night). 

It takes a particular kind of musician to embrace this vision. A special kind of captain to steer the ship. A certain kind of ensemble to ensure the dream. The Tonhalle-Orchester is a family of magically fabled players and personalities. Stalwart, familiar section principals, massed pedigree forces, an eminently experienced leader, Julia Becker, concertmaster since 1995, flushed with pride. Rising to the hour, there was frankly astonishing solo and ensemble playing from all departments, a tangible, nerve-end feeling for style, theatre and fantasy. The concentration was intense, all watching Järvi and each other, faithful to the last. The conductor-director-producer-painter at work. His palette the one-hundred-and-sixty-two individuals massed before him (unmasked), oils and water-colours, crayons and charcoal to be applied or mixed, balanced, in endlessly nuanced variation. The hall the frame of his art, the gallery of his following (masked). The room by the lake.