Magnificent Mendelssohn and Mahler in Zurich

Tonhalle Maag is a temporary concert venue for the Tonhall Orchestra Zurich but has superior acoustic qualities.  

Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy Violin Concerto
Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 (The Titan)
Herbert Blomstedt, conductor; Julia Fischer, Violin
Tonhalle Maag

Tonhalle Maag is a temporary concert venue for the Tonhall Orchestra Zurich while the old Tonhalle in central Zurich is refurbished.

The old Tonhalle was built in the late 19th century and designed by the Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, who were also responsible for the Zurich Opera House and since the inaugural concert conducted in 1895 by Johannes Brahms, it has been considered acoustically superb.

The new venue has been created inside an old industrial building. The hall, lined with a light spruce, also has superior acoustical qualities such that many in the city want the temporary space to be used once the orchestra returns to the old Tonhalle.

These acoustic qualities were obvious in the orchestra’s latest concert featuring the work of Mendelssohn and Mahler.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto has all the elements of a Romantic work with descriptions of landscapes paralleled with emotional responses; there are dark brooding passages expressing loneliness, others expressing ruggedness and the wild as well as sections which are almost mystical.

The soloist has to understand these qualities and attempt to convey their musical and emotional qualities. German violinist Julia Fischer achieved this, exuding utter confidence in her performance. 

Her approach appeared to be focused on providing an intelligent understanding of the music both technically and emotionally. At times she played with a riveting aggressiveness while at other times her playing was tender, thoughtful and playful. Throughout her performance her body appeared to respond to the music, her body rigid with controlled emotion. At others her body arched in a passionate response to the music and then there were times when she appeared to be almost dancing to the music.

Mahler’s Symphony No 1 is unlike most first symphonies. Although it is a work of youthful enterprise and experimentation it is also a work of supreme maturity.

The composer attempted to create a score in pursuit of a Romantic vision and placed himself at the core of the music, expressing his own physical, spiritual and emotional life, depicting both the hero (Titan) and the common man as though engaged in the same struggles, seeking the same goals. He is also trying to create a musical language based on the past but which attempts to create a new means of expression.

Conductor Herbert Blomstedt and the orchestra provided a sound that ranged from the heroic to the mundane, from the mature to the juvenile and from the great vista to the simple gesture.

Blomstedt, who is now 90, controlled the orchestra with a close attention to detail and balance between the various elements of the orchestra, ensuring all the solo parts, from the single note of the harp to the final ecstatic solo trombone made their impact. He controlled the orchestra with what often seemed like semaphore signalling along with hand gestures that had a balletic elegance.

The first movement, with its acknowledgment of Beethoven and many of the other 19th century composers, was well handled, adding a certain edginess to the Romantic flow of the music.

In the second movement, he juggles the contrasting themes and juxtaposition of folk and children’s songs with military sounds.

The third movement’s opening lament, which morphs into music full of angst, showed Mahler’s ability to create surreal music that is continually intercut with subliminal sequences under Blomstedt’s careful control.

In the final movement, the contrasting visions of heaven and hell and the sense of foreboding were intensified by the conductor emphasising the silences as well as the pianissimo and fortissimo passages. This movement, with its visions of a flawed superhero with its two grand finishes, is full of dramatic effect with orchestra seeming to almost surprise itself with its accomplishment.

The intensity of emotion, the poetry of the music and the clarity with which all this was conveyed was a triumph for the orchestra and conductor.

Future Concerts of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

September 13: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major K. 482, Alban Berg Violin Concerto To the memory of an angel

September 19: Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 9 in D major, Anton Bruckner Symphony No. 7 in E major

October 10: Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat major S 124, Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor

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