This concert at the Tonhalle saw a demanding programme of works by Olivier Messiaen, Leonard Bernstein and Anton Bruckner under Paavo Järvi’s baton. First, Messiaen’s L'Ascension, an early example of the French composer’s many religiously-grounded works, composed in 1932, which runs the wide gamut of expression that ranges from giddy humour and polka-like rhythms, to the sense of deep-seated pain and discord.

Janine Jansen
© Marco Borggreve

Vigorous horns gave the first call to attention, later imparting the sense of waves breaking over and over again: a form of fluid propulsion. In the second movement, fine woodwinds painted melancholy and busy dialogues, while the strings kept a supernatural flutter above them. Ten cellos featured prominently in the third movement, escalating to an intergalactic frenzy before the resolution, while the last movement, marked by sober, mystical overtones, saw the strings holding a single line, almost as if portraying a last human breath.

The evening's greatest draw, however, was the Dutch violinist, Janine Jansen, who performed Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato's Symposium, for solo violin, strings, harp and percussion. The highly complex and demanding work – which was premiered by Isaac Stern in Venice in 1954 – is based on Plato’s dialogue among philosophers on the nature and purpose of human love. In what Jack Gottlieb cited as “melodic concatenation” is music that propels new ideas by expanding (or refining) elements featured in earlier movements. Jansen was an able weaver, a connector of textural elements. Her performance was flawless, her rapport with the Tonhalle Orchestra, particularly the first cellist in a remarkable duet, highly commendable.

Jansen’s was also a highly physical performance: her movements loose and dancer-like as she portrayed anger, resolution, abandonment, gaiety. The first movement, was markedly emotive; the second, varying sheer lightness and jabs of passion. In the third, the parry between tutti and soloist was frenzied, while in the more sombre fourth, she and her fine instrument told a sad story. No surprise that she took three curtain calls.

Last on the programme was Bruckner’s Symphony no. 3 in D minor, dedicated to Richard Wagner. While its 1877 premiere in Vienna met with biting criticism, the work was ultimately acknowledged as a marker for its monumental symphonic construction: a bridge between the joyousness of human life and its ever-present pain. In this Zurich performance, given in Bruckner's third version (1889), there was a fine oboe solo in the first movement, and the booming presence of the muscular timpani. Close to a hundred superb Tonhalle players all had a physical workout on stage, the solo flute, oboe and horn excelling particularly. In the Adagio, the exchanges between flutes and horns, were outstanding. In the Scherzo, the strings gave us light summer romance, and the Trio even saw Järvi seeming to dance on the podium. His transitions between the lyrical and monumental were masterful.