Berlioz’ Harold in Italy dates from 1834 and was commissioned by Niccolò Paganini to celebrate acquisition of a new Stradivarius viola. The resulting work, a programmatic “symphony with viola obbligato” gave the soloist so little to do that Paganini rejected it (although he later changed his mind and publicly apologised).

Antoine Tamestit and Paavo Järvi
© Dieter Nagl, courtesy of Musikverein Wien

French viola player Antoine Tamestit, who wrote about his relationship to the work for  Bachtrack during the Berlioz 150 anniversary, tackled the solo part with uninhibited energy, his rapport with the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich seamless. He entered the stage casually, taking his place only after they had already started to play. Given that delayed entrance, he seemed almost an uninvited guest, but his first engagement with a sublime harp went on to show him fully integrated. Within minutes, too, the work itself expanded exponentially, demanding not only terrific physicality from Tamestit, but great volume and engagement from all the players. Conductor Paavo Järvi was, at times, as animated as whipping an unruly horse, the only caution being that, amid such great turbulence, the soloist was threatened several times with an audio wash-out by the horns.

The second movement, however, gave Tamestit an optimal chance to shine. In one long passage, accompanied only by the lower strings, his weave of sound simply electrified the Tonhalle. The third movement featured two striking interludes: firstly, a parry between the soloist and the orchestra’s fine clarinets, and secondly, his clean viola line above the double basses' lengthy pizzicato. While the sheer bombast of the work was somewhat overpowering, the robust and versatile viola, and cameos from various principals, made for an upbeat and memorable performance.

Arnold Schoenberg’s 1937 orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor was next. In Brahms, Schoenberg found a degree of a modernity that he himself even connoted as “progressive”. Indeed, this expanded arrangement of the Brahms piece, while revealing the arranger’s subtle art of orchestration, never denies Schoenberg’s highly idiosyncratic signature.

After the work’s bombastic beginning, Järvi signalled a “pipe down” to the players, and continued with particularly graceful and moderate gestures. The first movement is marked, both by successive repeats among the various instrumental groups, and abrupt changes of mood, ranging from the contemplative to something like a “lightness of being”. The second movement seemed a series of musical questions asked and answered among various instrumental groups, and multiple variations on a simple melody, all escalating towards a huge explosion of sound in the movement’s final measures. 

The woodwinds opened the third movement, each offering its own sound to the fray, the bassoon and flute being most compelling. Including march music, the third is majestic and oboist Simon Fuchs played a stunning solo, while the final movement brought in an equestrian pace; one could imagine the stomping of a Russian cavalry. The flute and xylophone contributions therein were star-studded, and where the clarinet picked up the pace, the reference to gypsy music was a sheer delight. In sum, the orchestra played Schoenberg’s orchestration with energy and aplomb, meeting every demand under Järvi's exacting and spirited conducting.