Guest Writer, Ateş Orga

Twelve months ago I was in Zürich covering the inaugural concert of Paavo Järvi as Chief Conductor and Music Director of the venerable Tonhalle Orchestra. A responsive, world-class band under youthfully motivated management. Discerning repertory – Sibelius’s Kullervo. In Järvi the most sympathetic, approachable and responsible of conductors. The ideal music man for our times.

The 2020 pandemic has brought seismic change. Concerts continue but differently, with webcasts and live-streaming not so much an occasional luxury as a way of life, (mostly) reduced forces physically distanced, and limited audiences (or none) par for the course. Tuning in to music-making hundreds, thousands, of miles away. Sound engineers and cameramen, producers and directors, technology in the spotlight. Virtuality. Bubble culture. Webcams. It’s all strangely hermetic. Music is a socially interactive experience. What do performers, listeners do at the end of a performance – wait awkwardly for applause that never comes, bow self-consciously amongst themselves, clap before a screen for no one to hear, wander off aimlessly? I admire the tenacity, the positivity, the exchanged smiles of players refusing to throw in the towel, whatever the catastrophic stresses surrounding them – personal, professional, financial. I value the innovative, artist- rather than audience-led, programming that’s surfaced in many quarters. One unexpected bonus has been the return of silence where it matters, within the page. But I miss the contact, the adrenalin charge of concert nights, the emotional and intellectual exchange of the hour. A glass of wine, a bustling bar, good company sets the moment, excites expectations, gets a buzz going like nothing else. Virus, restriction and lockdown aware as I am, deprived of that, of what historical praxis, ancient to modern, has ingrained into the human condition, comes at a psychological price.

Back in June the Tonhalle Orchestra filmed several concerts in their substitute concert room in the Tonhalle Maag, a makeshift space while their old home, the lakeside Tonhalle, is being restored. “In intensive discussions with Paavo Järvi, we selected works that we do not play regularly and that were surprisingly exciting for many, not only in the composition of the programmes, but also as a listening experience in a hall with a maximum of 250 people and a maximum of 40 musicians on stage.” At the time I accessed a riveting salt-and-silk Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks and Strauss Le bourgeois gentilhomme (June 25). Two concerts from the weekend before have now been newly released. For strings: Sibelius’s Rakastava, Opus 14 (plus timpani and triangle) coupled with Dvořák’s E-major Serenade, Opus 22 (June 19). For woodwind: Richard Strauss’s early E-flat Wind Serenade, Opus 7, and Dvořák’s D-minor Serenade, Opus 44 (June 20). There’s well-bred, fabulously special playing here, Järvi’s way with Dvořák – Bohemian warmth and rubato with a splash of Baltic water – having always appealed. Lyricism, richness of melody, a rugged facade in the Wind Serenade, Indian summer sunshine in the earlier String one, make for a wonderful late nineteenth-century panorama, rurality touched with urbanity.

I grew up with István Kertész’s LSO Decca account of the former, recorded in Kingsway Hall in May 1968. The players were never individually credited, though programme listings from the period, Philip Stuart reminds me, would suggest Roger Lord (oboe) and Gervase de Peyer (clarinet), possibly Barry Tuckwell (first horn), as well as Nelson Cooke (cello) and Stuart Knussen (bass). What a halcyon sound and chemistry they created. Nurtured and shaped, the ensemble left to its own pedigree voice and say, Järvi’s third movement, neither too Andante nor too con moto, takes me back. How clarinet and oboe phrase, balance and blend the opening is one of the make-or-break tests of this score. No question can be asked of Michael Reid or Simon Fuchs, backstays of the Tonhalle for more than thirty years. Connoisseur musicianship and fellow understanding of the highest level, tearfully beautiful. Makes you want to fall in love all over again.

Sibelius & Dvořák

Strauss & Dvořák