Not many orchestras are named after the hall they routinely play in. The Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich is one of them and the original building, the Neue Tonhalle, was constructed in 1895 and based on the Parisian Palais du Trocadéro. Since 2019 Paavo Järvi has been the orchestra’s twelfth Music Director and in both tours and recordings he has given it a greater international presence.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich
© Daniel Dittus

For the opening night of this short residency at the Elbphilharmonie, Järvi had paired Messiaen’s L’Ascension with Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony. This made good sense. After just a few bars the music of both composers is instantly recognisable, each working with blocks of sound combined with moments of stillness for reflection, both driven by their devoted religious faith and their command of the organ-like sonorities which were part of their initial trade.

As became obvious later in the performance of the symphony, where nods and smiles from desk partners told their own tale, Järvi and his players have a fine working relationship. His clear and elegant beat elicits a precise and committed response. However, despite his careful balancing of brass and woodwind in the opening movement of the Messiaen, the unforgiving acoustics picked up on the tiniest of wobbles and imperfections. Upper frequencies had a harsh glare to them, especially at higher dynamic levels.

Music always grows out of tradition, even when it is fundamentally in opposition to it. What I took away from the second movement were the distinct echoes of Stravinsky’s Sacre as well as the very Brucknerian tremolo effects in the strings. In the third movement where Alleluias rule the show in the repeated fanfares, Järvi achieved a balletic quality, and as it drew to a close there was a solid earthiness in the fugal section for strings which reminded me of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin. In the final movement, for strings alone, the Prayer from Christ ascending towards His Father, you could almost hear the composer pulling out different stops, one at a time, as the music progressed hymn-like with subtle shifts in sonority but always with absolute assurance and certainty.

With any Bruckner symphony the key watchword is never to hurry. Järvi understands this so well. He controlled the ebb and flow of the melodic lines, whilst making full use of the many Luftpausen, allowing his musicians to do all the talking as he guided and shaped the musical argument without any need for fussy micro-management. 

The two inner movements had the greatest impact. In the very solemn Adagio Järvi picked out some of the ascending figurations in the strings, creating an architectural unity with the earlier Messiaen, and conjured up several moments of magical calm and repose, Bruckner entirely at peace with the world. Come the Scherzo, Järvi made full use of the opportunities for contrast, with a fearsome, almost demonic tread to the strings coupled with jubilant brass eruptions. The second subject carried a degree of impishness, and this lightening of the mood continued into the Trio with the most delicate of pizzicatos and noble-sounding horns.

After a soft and gentle beginning to the Finale, the first statement was exuberant and exultant, joyous anticipation of journey’s end, that final ladder to heaven triumphantly ascended, the chorales here and elsewhere presented with the majesty with which this entire work is imbued. There is only one version of the Sixth, with no chinks in the armoury that allow so much of the tinkering and “necessary” textural revisions evident in Bruckner’s other symphonies. Sometimes at the end of a performance you are left thinking, “Yes, this is exactly the way the music should go.”