Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, which premiered in Vienna in 1808, marks one of the great triumphs of the composer’s oeuvre, and Beatrice Rana played it here in Zurich in honour of his 250th anniversary. Rana’s stage presence couldn’t have been more graceful, her cream-coloured gown – heavily laden with black sequins – flattered, flowed and sparkled around her ankles like curling pools of darkened water. While her piano technique was flawless, it was her exquisite variation in volume and the shadows and light she infused into the work that made it unforgettable. Her perfect balance between tenderness and vehemence, tension and release, fairy dust and solid state demonstrated a superb interpreter.   

Beatrice Rana © Nicolas Bets
Beatrice Rana
© Nicolas Bets

Fabio Luisi’s direction was highly controlled and modest during the concerto, but in the remainder of the programme, he would pull out all the stops. His uniquely pointed, if dancer-like, hand-work, was both tender and expressive. Luisi seemed to sculpt the sound from the players, cradle it in the vessel he made of his arms. His animated facial expressions showed intensity, vigour and sometimes even humoured strain throughout. His is a vigorous physical performance, but one barring of anything that is showy, and in complete service to the many-layered score. During the first of Rana’s cadenzas, for example, he stood by the piano lid, his hands quietly folded, his eyes down in a gesture of respect that was both compelling and sympathetic.

In Claude Debussy’s La Mer, the Philharmonia Zürich's Concertmaster, Ada Pesch, gave clear signals to an expanded configuration of some 95 players, among them, the solo oboe, cello and horns that distinguished themselves particularly. Debussy purportedly modelled La Mer as something he called “three symphonic sketches”, the changing colours and water plays it evoked also being the hallmarks of what his Impressionist contemporaries were modelling in paint. First performed in Paris in 1905, it initially met with strong currents of incomprehension and discord. In Boston in 1907, for example, one critic cited the work as a “series of symphonic pictures of sea-sickness”. But today, the music's ebb and flow, tempo changes, sudden dynamic explosions and degree of unpredictability mark it as a reflection of what large bodies of water actually do.   

Fabio Luisi conducts Philharmonia Zürich © Monika Rittershaus
Fabio Luisi conducts Philharmonia Zürich
© Monika Rittershaus

Ending the concert was Maurice Ravel’s La Valse, a work originally called a “choreographic poem for orchestra” that was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes and first performed in Paris in 1920. Some contemporary critics cited the work as a metaphor for an impoverished European civilisation after the First World War, while Ravel countered: “one should see only in it what the music expresses, an ascending progression of sonority, to which (is added) light and movement”. 

In Zurich, the orchestra seemed to shine, oboe and flute again demonstrably shaping their respective solos. Overall, the whole piece imparted a childlike gaiety; indeed, smiles were readily passed among the players. In short, if sonorous delights are what you were after, this was your concert.

*****