Richard Strauss’ tone poem Death and Transfiguration was first on the Philharmonia Zürich's programme under Markus Stenz. Remarkably, while the work reflects the end of a life, Strauss was only 25 years old when he composed it in 1893. To tame or whitewash death was not part of the equation: this tone poem, wrapped in a luxuriant, rich soundscape, is one that includes a broad spectrum of emotive effects. It moves from the fine solo oboe at the very start, for example, to the collective bombast of the tutti near its conclusion. Even at a young age, Strauss was of the conviction that the path from any deathbed could lead directly to an “uplift” and he reflected that in this richly-textured musical paradise. But for as often as this work is explosive, it also has moments of contemplative, quiet expression. Here, those contrasts were pointedly underscored: the strings, carrying the greatest volume, the other instruments, woven into a richly-textured piece whose resonance was uplifting. 

Philharmonia Zürich
© Monika Rittershaus

Next was Béla Bartók's moving Viola Concerto, a work that had survived only as a sketch at the composer’s death in 1945, but was completed by his devoted pupil, Tibor Serly. The highly accomplished soloist Nils Mönkemeyer made the intimate rapport with his instrument clearly evident. In his highly demonstrative, even radically animated performance, the viola seemed to have its own language; it “spoke” to the other players as seamlessly as it did to us in the audience. The explosives and contrasting pastoral interludes made this Bartók richly rewarding. In fleeting soli, the configuration’s fine oboe, flute, and bassoon also shone particularly.

Last on the evening’s programme was the Adagio from Gustav Mahler’s final work, the incomplete Tenth Symphony. The interval of the first four notes of the Adagio mark it as Mahler-made; for its emotional radicalism, it sets itself apart and counts among the highlights of Mahler's late works. That, despite the fact that when he tackled the Tenth, his personal life was in dreadful disarray: the affair that his beloved wife, Alma, was having with the architect, Walter Gropius, had been exposed. Painfully, the work’s unfinished manuscript included notes to her: “To live for you! To die for you!” 

Seemingly fully comfortable with the demands of the work, the Philharmonia Zürich met its challenges with animated aplomb, and made Mahler’s dreamy landscapes and pull on the heartstrings almost palpable. A superb solo cello, and no fewer that 12 fine cellists, were among in the huge configuration, and deserve special accolades. Particularly notable too, though, was the sheer athleticism of Stenz, who motivated the orchestra’s almost 100 players through the movement with sweeping athletic gestures that seemed almost a choreographed dance.