Product of four years of construction and fine-tuning, the Tonhalle's new organ weighs no less than 25,500 kilos and was crafted by the same company that delivered the instrument in 1872 to Zurich’s first concert hall. When the Tonhalle as we know it today was built in 1895, the organ was fitted into its home there, and modernised in 1939, but replaced by an instrument by another manufacturer in 1988. That instrument, however, has now ceded its position to the new Kuhn organ which this week demonstrated its phenomenal versatility and changing temperaments in Zurich’s newly renovated and magnificent hall.

The Tonhalle
© Gaëtan Bally

Of all the instruments, the organ can pride itself as the one with the broadest spectrum of tonalities.  The world premiere of Richard Dubugnon’s Caprice für Orchester V “Zürcher Art” was nothing short of grandiose. The Swiss composer’s bombastic beginnings succumbed in short order to dialogues among the various instrumental groups. Musical surprises followed one after another in quick succession: the horns, particularly, had the listen-to-this factor on their side. Generally cited as a proponent of “a playful, modern sensibility”, the composer's work also shows a democratic side: most of the individual instrument groups in the 15-minute piece were given their dues: the slow fanfare of the horns, being particularly riveting. A true highlight was the vibrant sequence performed by solo cellist, Anita Leuzinger.

Christian Schmitt
© Gaëtan Bally

Guillaume Connesson's Concerto da Requiem, a 2020 work commissioned by the Organ Festival of the Stadtcasino Basel and the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft Zürich AG, is a work in three movements. It was underpinned by the powerful foundation of Christian Schmitt’s masterful organ performance and enhanced, in its first movement, a dreamy Kyrie, not only by the sound of the instrument, but also by its position on the stage. With its console at an angle to the audience, one could also follow Schmitt’s able footwork. The Dies irae, by contrast, was vehement and gripping, including percussion of ingenious variety – even a large aluminium sheet – before the movement moved into sounds that entered on tiptoe, and the tutti struck a single striking note at its conclusion. The final Dona nobis pacem started with a harp and other-worldly organ accompaniment, and took advantage, not only of a full palette of percussion, including marimba and chimes, but also a burbling harp. The 21-minute piece explores whole new dimensions of familiar instruments against the rich weave of the organ’s tapestry.

Paavo Järvi
© Gaëtan Bally

The orchestra crowned the evening with Camille Saint-Saens’ sublime “Organ” Symphony, which saw Paavo Järvi vehemently shaking his shoulders and almost dancing on the podium to inject the work with a heightened sense of the innocent and playful. Within short order of the start, there had been more explosives, but as the work continued, solo bassoon, strings, horns and pastoral flutes performed passages so smoothly that the conductor just standing momentarily with his hands down at his sides, as if just to enjoy the velvet of the orchestra’s sound himself. But there were broad dimensions in the score, too: what was turbulent suddenly turning into the jovial. Järvi’s animated grin and his “dig in” gestures towards the organist before Schmitt modelled a huge forte chord, and turned the score from lightweight to heavy-barrelled. The cymbals crashed for dramatic effect; there was a compellingly beautiful line of the oboe. In sum, the symphony was a triumph of modulation and dramatic moods, an audio and visual feast.