Two things signal the return to something approaching “normality” in the classical music world after the pandemic: huge symphonies and touring orchestras. Packed audiences have thrilled to Mahler and Bruckner epics over the past few months, but the number of visiting orchestras to UK venues in the coming season is low – unless you look at Cadogan Hall. The Belgravia concert hall’s popular Zurich International Orchestra Series is back with an intriguing menu of orchestras. And some tasty big symphonies too.

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Cadogan Hall
© Todd Creative Services

Founded in 1945, the Seoul Philharmonic is the oldest Korean orchestra, raised to international stature during its decade under Myung-whun Chung. Due to the pandemic hiatus, Osmo Vänskä’s tenure as Music Director has been brief – he stands down at the end of 2022 – so their Cadogan Hall concert at the end of October will be the only chance British audiences get to witness this partnership in action. There’s a recent work, Frontispiece, by Unsuk Chin, composer-in-residence with the orchestra for 12 years, which is bookended by two crowd-pleasers. Sunwook Kim, a Korean pianist who hit the headlines when he won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2006, plays Tchaikovsky’s barnstorming First Piano Concerto. Then Vänskä conducts the 1919 Suite from Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird.

October also sees the visit of the Brno Philharmonic. Many people would associate the city of Brno with Leoš Janáček and Dennis Russell Davies does indeed open the concert with Moravia’s favourite son, the Gogol-inspired orchestral rhapsody Taras Bulba. The other two works in the programme feature works by central Europeans that were composed in America. Erich Korngold had made a career as a composer for cinema, defining the Hollywood film score, but after the Second World War he concentrated on writing for the concert hall once more, his most popular work being his highly romantic Violin Concerto, played here by Alexander Sitkovetsky. Then there’s Antonín Dvořák’s evergreen “New World” Symphony.

The Belgian National Orchestra makes the short trip across – or under – the English Channel, meeting up with a leading British pianist on the way. Roberto González-Monjas conducts rare Respighi – the Preludio, corale e fuga – and Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony (presumably the Belgians are bringing their own organ). Paul Lewis is the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major, K503, which opens in a grand manner but, once the pianist enters, is full of grace and charm.

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The Royal Philharmonic, resident orchestra at Cadogan Hall
© Nick Rutter

It’s great when visiting orchestras evoke their own cultural distinctiveness in their touring programmes. The Armenian State Symphony includes a selection from Khachaturian’s riotous ballet Spartacus to open its concert, and the Swedish Philharmonia (known at home as the Gävle Symphony Orchestra) plays Sibelius’ stirring Second Symphony. The Swedes also nod to Armenia though, with Nemanja Radulović tucking into the bold primary colours of Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto.

The Iceland Symphony Orchestra included the music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir on its last Cadogan Hall visit, just before the world stopped in early 2020. In April 2023 the orchestra plays her Metacosmos, a tone poem that grows from a dark rumble, to open its programme. Stephen Hough plays Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto in what will be the composer’s 150th anniversary month, and Eva Ollikainen conducts Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. It’s a good season for Tchaikovsky – the Armenians play the Fourth and the Romanian National Philharmonic Orchestra plays the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Maxim Vengerov’s Prokofiev Violin Concerto no. 1 should be a highlight of the Romanians’ visit.

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Stephen Hough
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

There’s more Rachmaninov – and Sibelius – when the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra closes the Zurich International series in May. Freddy Kempf plays “Rach 3”, still regarded as a monster of a piano concerto – while Olari Elts conducts Sibelius’ Symphony no. 5 in E flat major, its “swan theme” finale one of the most uplifting in the symphonic repertoire. It is preceded by a work based on an episode from the Kalevala, but not composed by the mighty Finn; Thea Musgrave’s Song of the Enchanter was written in 1990, in homage to Sibelius’ 125th anniversary. The Estonians also bring a gift from home with a particular resonance to UK audiences – Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten

With so many international flavours, the Zurich International Orchestra Series certainly offers a great tasting menu this season. 

Click here to view the events in the Zurich International Orchestra Series

This article was sponsored by Cadogan Hall.