Friday, April 30, 2021

Tonhalle Maag, Zürich, Switzerland

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Around forty years ago I was in Prague. Standing on the Charles Bridge, the Vltava in vernal flow, gazing up at the old Castle and Cathedral, I wanted to know about the city’s nineteenth-century culture and society. Then look at Vienna shrugged my faceless companion. Vienna, three-and-a-half hours south-east, seat of the Habsburgs. Taking the hint, I did, seeking out the word-paintings of Max Graf – one born of the place and its past, chronicler of its life from Empire to Anschluss, the Stefan Zweig of his vocation. Written in exile, his Legend of a Musical City was published in New York in 1945. Re-visiting it, little about Prague … a passing reference to young peasant-girls working and laughing in the Moravian fields who down at the inn “wore many petticoats, and tied coloured kerchiefs around their heads” … but everything to do with peoples, ethnicities, landscape, atmosphere, remembrance. Musings to bejewel a Bohemian hour.

Josef Špaček, formerly youngest concertmaster of the Czech Philharmonic, excelled in Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. Contrasting Julia Fischer – searing and powering her way through these pages at the 2014 Proms, the visiting Tonhalle under its then outgoing director, David Zinman – Špaček, reminiscent of Suk’s grandson, Josef, takes a generously intimate view of the music. Steely attack, playing to the gallery, isn’t his style. Breathing the notes, wanting to converse, inviting orchestral interaction, creating toned and hued narratives, is. His nuanced lyricism yielded a beautiful Adagio pastorale, flickering in fireside F-major.Given the right pianist and cellist what, you wonder, might he do with the Dumky Trio? Summer flowers, winter winds, poesies and dances, gruff rhetoric, Slavic embrace. An auspicious appearance, whatever shortcomings of the score the classicist in Joachim presumed royally swept away.

Suk, who married Dvořák’s daughter, losing her tragically young, has been experiencing something of a renaissance in recent seasons, not least with Kirill Petrenko in Berlin championing the Asrael Symphony and Pohádka léta (A Summer’s Tale)Jakub Hrůša’s choice of the Fairy Tale Suite Opus 16 essayed the accessibility of the man. The work originated out of the incidental music he composed for Julius Zeyer’s play Radúz a Mahulena, premiered in Prague’s National Theatre in June 1898 (subject of Petr Weigl’s 1970 film). The story, entwining fairy tale, mythology and Sanskrit references, tells of lovers from feuding kingdoms. In four movements – I ‘The Constant Love of Radúz and Mahulena and Their Trials’, II ‘Playing at Swans and Peacocks’, III ‘Funeral Music’, IV ‘Queen Runa’s Curse and How It Was Broken by True Love’ – the Suite showcases intense feeling, richest melody, and virtuoso orchestration. Dvořák called it “music from heaven”. It is, and more.

I haven’t always warmed to Hrůša’s performances – though a notable Má vlast with the Bamberg Symphony at the 2019 Proms amounted to one of the great readings. Relishing the collaboration, the Tonhalle-Orchester, playing like gods, rose to sublime heights. Pleasured glances, every move watched, climax and catharsis openly, individually, responded to, said it all. The first intermezzo was a delight, the perfection of folk dance and puckish articulation. Leading, Julia Becker delivered her spotlit solos with consummate artistry and golden phrasing, the leaning E-major return of Mahulena’s first movement love motif at the end deliriously haunting the room. Hrůša, Bělohlávek-trained, makes the most of textural niceties and tonal luxuriance, he gives everyone space and air, he gets 110% feedback. A trial masked audience. Fifty. The lucky few. One of those sunset evenings.