Voted ‘Opera House of the Year 2014’, the Zurich Opera House also has its own fine orchestra, and its Philharmonia distinguishes itself again and again for its resonant sound and capable adaptability. The orchestra recently performed Rachmaninoff and Beethoven under Fabio Luisi at Zurich’s historic Tonhalle. Maestro Luisi – in the interim, Chief Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York − was appointed General Director of the Zurich Opera in 2011 after many guest appearances. Opera demands a great flexibility on the part of the conductor, and the ability to notice and quickly remedy on-the-spot emergencies during a performance. So Luisi was in a fine position to conduct the cast of orchestra, soloists and choir that − between the two major works he conducted at the Tonhalle − numbered well over a hundred people.

French pianist Lise de la Salle gave a sovereign performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in F sharp minor. She modulated her tempi in the first movement with that of the oboe’s melancholic muster. This Vivace overwhelms with its panoply of notes, as dense as any fabric in Romantic music. But the soloist persuasively set in audible punctuation, giving each of the repetitive phrases its own character. She personalized the theatricality of the demanding piece; once, after a sequence of determined chords, she threw her forearms behind her as if to rid herself of them; later, she raised, sustained, then lowered her right forearm like a dancer readying her next steps.

The second movement Andante is particularly elegiac, none the least because of a dialogue between piano and bassoon the piano set down as a marker towards the beginning. The pianist swelled and diminished as if a breathing organism were in her control, and even the erratic fun-fair tones at the end of the movement did not lose themselves in the heavy orchestration. Rachmaninov often made revisions to his various works, and this 1917 one is thought perhaps the most successful. His understanding of harmony, orchestration, piano technique and musical form made it possible to transform an early, immature composition into a concise and highly spirited work that the Philharmonia musicians and soloist gave profound affirmation.

Then, just as in the first movement, the Allegro vivace finale starts with a bang, a sound that might be likened to something from the ‘jazz age’. Yet at another time, the pianist’s tempi and emphasis found her almost rocking in the arms of an orchestral lullaby. Entirely jubilant at the finish, she landed with a precision matched only by micro-engineering, although there was nothing stiff about her portrayal. When she stood up to the thundering applause at the finish, she turned first – endearingly − to the orchestra members to applaud them, and only then to the audience for its appreciation. Her encore, a Debussy étude, was as simple and meditative as the firework that had come before it had been tumultuous; she played the French composer’s short piece as if finding her centre, turning inwards to a quieter soul.

Beethoven’s Mass in C major made up the second half of the Sunday programme. Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy II commissioned the mass in 1807 to commemorate the name day of his wife, Marie von Liechtenstein. In actual fact, six masses had been composed by Joseph Haydn previously to mark the same occasion in previous years. Beethoven knew that his work would be measured against the Haydn predecessors, but he wrote in enough of his own style to deviate from Haydn’s strict conventions. After the first performance, however, the Prince purportedly met the composer with this: “My dear Beethoven, what have you done here?” Proud − today we might say ‘socially incompetent’− as he was, Beethoven took offence at the comment and left the court straight away. He neither forwarded a copy of the work to the Prince, nor obliged him with the dedication. In the end, the score was dedicated to another noble instead. Just as well, perhaps; Prince Nikolaus later complained that he found the mass “unbearably ridiculous and detestable”.

The Zurich performance could hardly have been more at odds with that assessment. Sen Guo, Anna Stéphany, Mauro Peter and Erik Anstine − all either soloists or singers in frequent service to the Zurich Opera − sang with engaging and solid confidence. Beethoven’s critics agree that since as the C major mass was written 15 years earlier than his great Missa Solemnis and as a commission for someone else, it had far less personal religious significance for the composer. Nevertheless, the Zurich Opera choir sang with a conviction that was palpable. In the Gloria, theirs was a celebration on the grandest scale. During the stunning Credo, Fabio Luisi − baton in his right hand like a delicate teacup − several times offered the orchestra the open palm of his left hand as if to say, “here, my friends, take this”. The timpani set a dirge with the slow beats of the first “Holy, holy, holy...” in the Sanctus, and the choir and soloists − the tenor and bass particularly − drew out the notes of the Benedictus as if braiding their voices one inside the other. Maestro Luisi deserves every accolade for his precision in conducting, but so too does concertmaster Bartlomiej Niziol, who excelled in his clear direction to the players, offering unmistakable cues and leadership that tightened the performance to an even greater degree. What’s more, the singers visibly enjoyed what they had been tasked to do. As the soloists left the backstage door for the stage, a German voice behind them was clearly audible from the 12th row, and I translate: “Okay, everybody, have fun”!