In a letter to the American violinist Louis Krasner dated 16th July 1935, the ageing Alban Berg penned the following: “Yesterday I finished the composition [without the orchestration] of our Violin Concerto. I am probably more surprised by it than you will be (...) the work gave me more and more joy. I hope – no, I have the confident belief – that I have succeeded.”

Patricia Kopatchinskaja © Julia Wesely
Patricia Kopatchinskaja
© Julia Wesely

Here in Zurich, Patricia Kopatchinskaja was the soloist in the Berg’s complex Violin Concerto, a work commissioned by Krasner, who also premiered it in Barcelona in 1936. The score bears the inscription “To the memory of an angel”, the angel being the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius, Manon, who had died tragically of consumption at an early age. Sadly, Berg himself died some five months before the work was premiered.

Hallmarked by twelve-tone technique, but with intermittent interludes of straightforward tonality, the concerto’s score would be hard to play any less than emphatically. Kopatchinskaja did just that — with a gift whose reputation filled the hall to the very last seat. Dressed in a crisp, almost waxen white full-length gown, the violinist stood with her legs akimbo, making a solid base for the explosive rupture of sounds the work demands. Mastering changes of mood, colour and texture, she alternated between passionate and playful fragments with confidence, portraying both ends of Berg’s musical cosmos: tremendous physical power on one hand, and delicate lyrical citations on the other.

Teodor Currentzis used his hands, rather than a baton, to conduct and, in his black, billowing-sleeved shirt and tight trousers, the Greek-Russian conductor might have just as easily passed for a dancer. He consistently used his broad-shouldered body as the baton, moving with consummate grace and expression over his cues. He drew absolute coherency from the players of the Tonhalle Orchestra, who collectively broadcast a spirit of joy that Berg himself wanted the concerto to impart.

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony came after the interval. First performed in Leningrad in November 1937, the symphony’s successful reception marked the composer’s return from the fall from grace that had seen him, hitherto, an enemy of the Party. The great burst of the opening chord, an interval of eleven notes, is a strong wake-up call, the same one that launches each of the work’s four movements. In the first movement, where a quieter contemplative mood suddenly gives way to a terrific burst of energy, Currentzis could be seen opening his mouth wide several times, as if to open up the sound.

After the rousing start to the second movement, solo violin, flute and bassoon distinguished themselves with particularly clear and clean performances. Folkloristic tunes also made sporadic appearances, animating the work throughout. The third movement, moving in the lower registers and alluding to the grief of war and loss, emerges with the resonant “light” of the cellos, and the orchestra’s poignant woodwinds. Given the unspeakable hardships the Stalinist regime had placed upon artists and intellectuals, members of that first Leningrad audience purportedly wept when they heard that Largo.

In the fourth and final movement, Currentzis’s long arms were as animated as to occasionally wrap around his own neck at the back; at other times, he moved on the podium like a speed skater over ice. Alexei Tolstoy described the finale as a victory, “an enormous optimistic lift”. Hearing it in the spruce-clad enclave of the new Tonhalle Maag, the work fit that same bill. It brought me to my feet, left me shaken, invigorated and ready for the new.