Toshio Hosokawa’s Ceremony, dedicated to and premiered by celebrated flautist Emmanuel Pahud, is a work as enigmatic as it is demanding. The Japanese composer has cited that the flute’s solo voice symbolises the Shaman, whose ritualist ceremonies are echoed to evoke the sense of supernatural forces. Spirits are awakened by the “wind” of the flautist’s breath, while the large orchestra features as “the universe” at large. In the five-part, 20-minute long composition, Hosokawa says that he was “looking for a new form of spiritual culture and music of the Japanese people, with which I remain true to myself as to my origins”.

Emmanuel Pahud and Paavo Järvi
© Gaëtan Bally

While a high marker for a five-part work, Pahud and the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich rose to meet it with terrific dynamism in this season opener. At first, the flute’s song of invocation was offset by the tumultuous slides and dissonances of the whole configuration, while in the richly-woven second section, Pahud took up an alto flute whose song was darker and less ethereal, and even worked with the piccolo later in the piece. It was not uncommon to see him kick out a foot, jerk his instrument upwards as if to express a heated degree of vehemence, or produce unexpected sounds. The third section was marked by a animated musical struggle between him – now on piccolo, as the voice of the Shaman – and his fellow players. Nonetheless, as the score underlies a marked “fight against the real world”, Pahud eventually resumed his own untarnished and sterling solo flute line as he became more closely realigned with Nature.

The last chapter of the work includes ritual music that was composed during the global pandemic as a kind of prayer that Covid might soon end. Therein, a long dialogue with the orchestra is animated by “strikes” from the soloist, but ends on a single note that drifts away into the distance, letting the silence thereafter resonate as part of the work, and making a humbling conclusion.

Paavo Järvi conducts the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich
© Gaëtan Bally

Second on the programme was Anton Bruckner’s monumental Eighth Symphony, which premiered in Vienna in 1892, and whose velvety beginnings grow into the bombastic within short order. As a true master of dynamic progression, Bruckner built something of his own cosmos in his rich orchestration and here in Zurich, the contrasts between the tender beginnings and pure momentum were consistently gripping. Among individual players, several shone; from the start, the flute and full-bodied oboe delighting with their sublime resonances. At the same time, conductor Paavo Järvi’s direction was pointed and precise, despite the great nuances the symphony demands and the sheer mass of players. No fewer than eight double basses and ten cellos graced the stage, which had been extended to accommodate the larger orchestra, and their collective sound was close to a cosmos in itself.

The merits of this work are also found in its unexpected transitions, and the terrific building and retraction of momentum. Notably, the tender harp followed by the heft of the tutti was a transition the Tonhalle and Järvi completely mastered.