The evening began with Leoš Janáček’s emotive symphonic rhapsody, Taras Bulba. The work draws on Nikolai Gogol’s story of the Cossack hero who died after defeating the enemy Poles in a fierce battle. From the very start, duplicity was the bottom line in the dynamic score, whose moods are constantly changing. Under the fine Colombian conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the Tonhalle Orchestra moved within the work’s three movements from regimented to frivolous, from despairing to triumphal. What in the first movement (“The Death of Andrei”) was a thick weave of romantic swells and extended dialogue between strings and woodwinds gave way in the second (“The Death of Ostap”) to a rhythmic, even jolly and evenly-paced clip and sustained pizzicato.

Hilary Hahn
© Michael Patrick O'Leary

Both movements ended explosively, underscoring the shock of the deaths of Taras’s two sons, one for treason at the hand of the father, and one in battle. But it’s the third movement (“The Prophecy and Death of Taras Bubla”) that carried the tumultuous drama of an MGM Technicolor epic. The hero himself is killed against a backdrop that varies diaphanous sounds – including eerie solo organ – with the folkloristic melodies of a country fair. The full orchestra, and concertmaster Andreas Janke in particular, excelled in delivery, but for my taste, the work was too much all over the map to make much of a lasting impression.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D major, however, which premiered in 1923 in Paris, couldn’t have been more different. Hilary Hahn’s performance as soloist was the absolute gem of the evening. Having concertized with leading orchestras from her young teens, she has since shown herself to be a sovereign mistress of her instrument. But her intuitive and astute command of all the violin’s voices, the intimate exchange she shares with conductor and members of the orchestra and her willingness to tackle the most gruelling of string repertoires have all made her sterling reputation.

Hahn came onto the stage as modestly as an afterthought, and began by playing the first movement’s lyric melody softly, relishing its moments of ethereal grace, while supported by dialogs with the flutes, clarinets and oboes. The second movement, Scherzo, has been cited as “close to impossible to play”, given its tremendous pace and demands on fingering. But here in Zurich, it not only showed her technical brilliance but also her unpretentious ease with the conductor and fellow players. As her part moved from savage and muscular to almost amusingly naughty, she smiled and raised an eyebrow in companionship. By the same token, I had to grab onto my seat as she drove on the Scherzo’s high glissandi: the same sound as the knife strikes used in the shower scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho. The symphony’s finale, by contrast, was an invitation to dance, the robust bassoon setting the stage, the solo violin assuming the same line but then taking it to the limits of the Romantic. And at the end of the piece, after Taras’s own dramatic death, her instrument’s sound dissipated hauntingly: all good things, after all, must come to an end.

Hahn’s violin is an 1864 copy of Paganini's “Cannone” made by Vuillaume, and it was sublime to hear its resonance in the Bach partita she chose as her encore. Bach, she has said, is “the touchstone that keeps (her) playing honest… presenting the structure in such a way that it’s clear to the listener without being pedantic”, and that musicality touched this audience deeply. What’s more, as the artist took her applause, she shared one of her roses both with the conductor and concertmaster, endearing her to us as a human being.

Such a breath-taking performance was a hard act to follow, and after the interval, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor seemed a move towards the pomp and circumstance of more predicable orchestration; indeed, after Hahn’s magical moment, it even felt somewhat bawdy and two-dimensional. That said, the full Tonhalle configuration did a superb job of moulding the monumental passages of the Czech composer’s score, and several of the soloists – the clarinet, flutes, oboe and bassoon, in particular – underscored the Bohemian idiom and folkloristic citations with fine performances. Working on the final score in 1885, Dvořák himself once contended that this “Czech music would move the world”. Fair enough, for in Zurich, too, his seventh made a tremendous splash, and it serves well even today as a highly approachable and robust symphony. But it was the Prokofiev that truly moved the heart.