For the second of their three concerts featuring Bruckner symphonies, Paavo Järvi and the Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich served up the mighty Eighth. Before that came a nod to Järvi’s homeland in the shape of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten.

Paavo Järvi
© Daniel Dittus

Pärt’s short (six-minute) piece has often been dismissed because of its brevity and simplicity. Yet it marks the start of the composer’s fascination with tintinnabulation and a new musical language which takes the listener into mystical and religious realms. There was a real bell, not one of its tubular cousins, to begin this performance, slowly and softly chiming, while the strings emerged ethereally, gradually picking up pace and weight in this A minor canon until right at the end there seemed to be a gigantic swarm of bees vibrating and whirring, humming and buzzing in a colossal cloud of sound. With the Tonhalle’s strings on top form, this was extraordinarily effective, not only as a tribute to the composer whom Pärt valued for “the unusual purity of his music” but also as an entrée to the evening’s main work.

Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony is sometimes called “The Apocalyptic” in German-speaking countries. Given that the term alludes to the complete destruction of the world, this carries more than a touch of hyperbole, but its scale and scope easily dwarf anything that had previously been heard. Indeed, the composer Hugo Wolf, present at the premiere of the revised version under Hans Bülow in December 1892, stated that “This symphony is the creation of a giant... a triumph as complete as any Roman emperor could have wished for.”

Järvi doesn’t do granitic grandeur or anything much to do with spirituality, but he feels and expresses the monumentality. He also has a remarkable ear for instrumental detail and orchestral colour, evident in icy flutes, plaintive oboes and inky-black growling from the lower brass. In the Scherzo it seemed as though he was intent on tearing down the walls of Jericho. I have rarely heard such a ferocious movement in all Bruckner. It followed on attacca after the death-watch coda of the opening movement, bristling with pent-up energy, with loud blasts from a solo horn signalling the start of an almighty gale blowing in from foaming seas along the shoreline. 

The Tonhalle’s brass section is this orchestra’s powerhouse, the tuba positioned centrally between the horns and quartet of Wagner tubas on the left, with the golden-edged trumpets and trombones on the right. Unflagging until the end, these players often edged out the somewhat reticent woodwind choir, never mind the three harps whose celestial contributions were left fighting for air. Together with a seething cauldron of strings this was gripping, enervating and ultimately terrifying.

Once roused, the Furies are difficult to tame. Järvi, however, found moments of repose and also consolation in the solemn Adagio, the longest of the four movements, giving space for the leader’s tender solo contributions, matching the beseeching quality of the first violins with rich responses from the luminous cello section, giving ample space towards the end for a soft clarinet and burnished horns set against gently ruminating strings.

There was no time for the dust to settle in the Finale either. Järvi set off at a cracking pace, with thundering timpani (whose earlier interventions also impressed), blazing brass and ripples of energy racing through the serried ranks of the strings. While sensitive to moments of contrast, he left the listener in no doubt of the final destination as the journey progressed. I have heard more moving, more spiritual and more majestic performances, but few that were as thrilling and absorbing as this one.