Paavo Järvi launched his tenure as the new Music Director and Chief Conductor of Zurich’s fine Tonhalle Orchestra with repertoire that pointed to Scandinavia. It was fitting that he affirmed his northern roots, calling first on the work his Estonian countryman, the composer Arvo Pärt. If Bach had been a Beekeeper, a short work which dates from 1976, had recently been revised for a full configuration of musicians – piano, wind quintet, string orchestra and percussion – and this new version was presented for the first time here in Zurich. “I wanted to make the work more compact and engaging,” Pärt said, “to bring out the musical structure even more clearly.”

Paavi Järvi and the Tonhalle Orchestra
© Gaëtan Bally

Since the late 1970s, Pärt has worked in a minimalist style that underpins what he calls tintinnabuli, (from the Latin tintinnabulum, "a bell"), a compositional technique that is his own, highly personal and distinctive approach to stepwise, harmonic material. Pärt's music often bears resemblance to the stillness, austere simplicity and spiritual atmosphere of Gregorian chant, but also crucial to his work is its celebration of singing as a vital part of the Estonian national identity. Pärt is the living composer most frequently performed around the world today, so it was even more thrilling to find that he himself was seated in our concert audience.

The piece, which lasts only some six minutes, is based on the number four and the notes B, A, C and H. The strings largely sustain the hum of insects, and lend the work its “buzz” and fresh demeanour. Its whimsical world mesmerised the Zurich hall. Maestro Järvi pinned himself firmly to one spot, but his is a noble posture and, signalling his cues, his hands moved like those of a dancer cupping sounds. The musicians gave clear foundation to a score that oscillates between dissonance and consonance, between tension and welcome degrees of release. At its conclusion, Pärt himself came forward to acknowledge the honour paid him, and chivalrously, presented the bouquet designated for him to the gifted concertmaster, Julia Becker.

Jean Sibelius’ Kullervo followed, a suite of five symphonic movements based on the character in the epic Finnish poem, the Kalevala. Premiered in 1892 in Helsinki, the work features a host of resounding choral voices and two soloists in the tragic roles of ill-fated brother and sister. Here in Zurich, those roles were sung by the Finnish soprano Johanna Rusanen and baritone Ville Rusanen who, incidentally, are also brother and sister. The large configuration of the Estonian National Men’s Choir was joined on stage by members of the fine Zürcher Sing-Akademie. That made for a superb choir of some 70 singers behind the full orchestra, which was impressive by any standard.

The Tonhalle Orchestra and Paavo Järvi
© Gaëtan Bally

Kullervo, which had never been performed by the Tonhalle before, is marked by a thick fabric of sound around a narrative that includes episodes of seduction, incest, overwhelming guilt and, ultimately, two suicides. Understandably, Järvi had to bring out the high drama with far more animation than he’d had to conjure up with the Pärt. And here, he underscored the conflict and confusion of the tragic drama with demonstrative gestures and real athleticism, barring any self-serving or tiresome theatrics. He was able to elicit a maximum response with even modest signals – the twist of two fingers, or the bend of a knee underscoring the musicians’ precision and dogged persistence.

Given that the piece ran some 70 minutes, was largely unfamiliar and sung in Finnish, some of its dramatic impact was compromised. Much of the drama went missing in the mix, while the orchestra, two choirs and both soloists, all of them excellent, took the foreground.

Järvi’s focus may have been less on the glam or explosive effects, and more on the skill and carriage of the musicians’ achievements with the monumental score. And that, at very start of his tenure in Zurich, is a promising sign. As seasoned music critic Christian Wildhagen recently reported in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “… up to now every ensemble in which (Järvi) has worked as principal conductor over a long time sounded better, more precise and, above all, more inspired in the end.” That bodes well for an orchestra that’s already shown itself as polished as the Tonhalle is today.