Friday 28 August 2009

Blandness from Zinman and the Zurich Tonehalle - Brahms, Berio and Mahler

One criticism of this year's International Festival programme might be the relative lack of big name European orchestras. One of the few is the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich under baton of their chief conductor, David Zinman, who has held the post for around a decade and a half. As such, you might expect a pretty special combination.

Then again, I've not been overly impressed by what little I've heard from them before: a few bits of the Beethoven cycle and some Mahler. His Mahler is very much in vogue at the moment and they have been racing though a recorded cycle. However, I've found it rather unremarkable in the exerts I have on the radio.

Still, there's been litter Mahler at the festival since Mills took over so I thought I'd take a chance and hoped to have my mind changed. Sadly it was not.

Zinman began with Brahms' Variations on a theme by Haydn. They started as they meant to go on: with a dull and bland reading. Where was the yearning and the drama that marks so much great Brahms? Alternatively, the lightness and wit that might be found in interpretations like Mackerras's? There was a lack of excitement, except in the quickest moments, when the band couldn't entirely keep together. Indeed, as an orchestra they didn't much impress; quiet playing, always a good mark of quality, was thin and harsh.

Brahms was followed by a set of folk songs by Luciano Berio. They were joined on stage for these by soprano Dawn Upshaw. Her voice seemed slightly odd, but I couldn't pin it down. Perhaps it was the various accents she was attempting. Zinman didn't seem a particularly sensitive accompanist. Whether it was the performance or to the composition, it didn't really grab me.

After the interval came the Mahler. This too, was mostly bland. I say mostly because occasionally there was something close to drama, though mainly this was due to Zinman mistakenly equating volume with drama. The poor quiet playing was more of an issue here than in the Brahms: Zinman too often called for a volume below what was sensible for the players. That said, there were some good solos from the principal oboist (Simon Fuchs). Sadly the leader (Julia Becker) was less fine with her other violin in the second movement. The third movement, which should be hauntingly beautiful was just dull. Upshaw returned for the finale but her singing was disappointing. It seems her voice is past its peak, a little too thin and hollow, this was especially true of the lines at the end of each verse. The tantalising beauty of the vision of heaven was absent.

All in all, it was rather disappointing. For the most part, it felt as though Zinman had gone out of his way to lobotomise the pieces of interest. Fortunately, better should be in store tomorrow. Deneve, on home territory, conducts Berlioz's Romeo and Juliet.

Finally, I notice programmes at the international are now £3.50. Did they go up to this last year? Either way, for what we get it seems awfully pricey. The SCO give theirs out for £2 and at the LSO you get them for free. We produce a programme at the venue on similar quality paper and for the number of pages required for notes it can't be more than £1 a copy, then bear in mind the adverts (which must more than pay for their extra pages otherwise there'd be no point). Suffice to say it must be a nice money spinner for them. The Royal Opera charge a fair bit more, but you do get very good notes, articles and illustrations. I wonder if the future isn't in notes downloaded to my iPhone.

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