Monday 29 August 2011

EIF 2011 - Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, or A Demonstration of the Difference between Good and Great

This evening's performance was on my to hear list for one major reason, the presence on the programme of Maria João Pires, who I have been waiting for a chance to hear live again for ages. Fortunately she did not disappoint, but the performance of the Tonhalle Orchestra overall was for me an interesting demonstration of the line between good and really great orchestral playing.

Their best work as a band came in the evening's opener, a new piece by Anders Hillborg entitled Cold Heat. According to the programme note Zinman had asked for “NO slow music whatsoever” and Hillborg's statement that he had met him halfway seems equally fair. My mother had also picked up a description somewhere of the piece beneath the more frenetic sections being rather chorale like and I found this a helpful listening aid. Unusually for a new orchestral piece, or unusually for me at any rate, I felt I had a real sense of the shape of the piece. At the heart is a kind of minimalist chorale with a real intensity to it. It is overlaid in the middle section by a wilder rhythmic portion led by the percussion section who were obviously having great fun on their various drums, but the focus of the piece actually remains the chorale-like movement in the strings. I would definitely hear more of Hillborg, though I fear in conservative Edinburgh I would be in a minority. The applause was noticeably thin, and many self-evidently sat on their hands, most unjustifiably given that orchestrally this piece saw the best playing of the evening.

We continued with Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27. I had treasured memories of Maria João Pires's playing, though I think it has been at least ten years since I last heard her. It was beautiful. She is a wonderfully unassuming soloist, with a light touch, solemn or playful as the music calls for it, and perhaps most of all subtle, someone who really allows the music to speak for itself. Unfortunately, the band and Zinman were on a bit of a different planet. Other members of my party felt that the big problem was that they were simply playing too loudly and swamping her. I had a different reaction. It struck me that Zinman's view of Mozart didn't really fit with Pires's. He had a kind of heavy, inflexibility where she was light and thoughtful. The result was that for all the beauty and magic of Pires's playing the performance was not completely satisfying.

The final work in the programme was Dvořák's Symphony No.8 and this revealed with great clarity the limitations of the Tonhalle Orchestra as a band and Zinman as an interpreter. To be strictly fair to them there were some lovely moments. I expect I found these easier to enjoy than others of the party who are much more familiar with this work which I don't think I had heard in concert before. Dvořák really makes the orchestra sing in parts of this work and the Tonhalle did bring some of this across. Elsewhere though their performance was telling about the gap between good orchestras and really great ones. They just didn't have the precision, quality of sound, dynamic range or flexibility of a truly first rank band. One noticed this in lots of little things – that slight sense of scrambling, solos not completely blending or balancing within the sound picture as a whole, muddiness at the ends of phrasings. I also didn't think Zinman quite had the measure of this work either in that the nice moments didn't fit together into a convincing whole. Many of these issues were then decisively confirmed when the band launched into one of Dvořák's Slavonic Dances as an encore where in particular Zinman's lack of flexibility meant that they failed to get the requisite excitement and indeed slight wildness into the piece.

This was another mixed Festival evening, something which has been rather characteristic of this year. It was great to hear the Hillborg and Pires but I was rather less convinced by this conductor/orchestra team.

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