Giovanni Antonini built terrific suspense into the beginning of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, swelling and pulling back the Tonhalle Orchestra’s volume as if driving waves into shore. The overture begins with a robust reflection of Roman hero Coriolanus' war-like tendencies and heroic resolve, but soon gives way to a tender theme that represents his mother’s plea for peace. The dramatic content was high, and the maestro was equally physical: he might strike a pose like Rodin’s “The Thinker”, then stand up abruptly and spread his arms wide to trigger a musical shift. Among his pointed directions, it was not uncommon to see his barred teeth or his face given up to pure rapture. And that emotive energy was shared by the players, who responded with verve, vigour and striking polish.

Avi Avital © Harald Hoffmann
Avi Avital
© Harald Hoffmann

Iin his debut appearance in Zurich, virtuoso Avi Avital played Antonio Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C major, RV425. Given the tremendous speed and technical precision it requires, it is widely considered the most challenging of Vivaldi’s concerti. No matter: Avital was up to the task.

He played the rapid-paced, upbeat tune of the first movement with great relish and spontaneity. There were striking contrasts between the mandolin and the rest of the orchestra, sweeping resonances and pizzicato that Avital often abruptly silenced or made brash. Unlike the cheerful first movement, the second movement saw him set a silvery, spectral mood that is eerily inviting; the third movement, however, spoke best to me. Avital’s fingers made a filigree of sound, a kind of colourful buzz one might equate with a summer meadow. It was animation and refreshment of the first order, even if in parry with the first cello (Thomas Grossenbacher), Avital’s furious tempi almost threatened twice to leave his gifted colleague just slightly behind.

Next Avital tackled an arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto no. 1 in D minor, BWV1052. The work was most likely composed around 1725 as a transcription from an earlier violin concerto, a practice of adaptation from one instrument to another that was commonly done in the Baroque era. I knew the arrangement for violin well, but hoped my bias might fade in the face of innovation. After all, Avital’s posture was strong; he had superb command of his instrument: his fingers unleashed tremendous energy on the mandolin’s strings.

But in the highest registers of the first movement, I had reservations. For where the violin can produce one continuous vibrato line, any longer tones on the mandolin must be either strummed or picked, sometimes making the line choppy and too constricted for my taste. In the second slow movement, without the harpsichord, the configuration felt only loosely hinged together, and the musical thread impressed me as almost lethargic. My enthusiasm was revived in the third movement as Avital entered into intricate “dialogue” with Peter Solomon’s glorious harpsichord and the delicately descending passages and unexpected turnings of the orchestra. But overall, I was underwhelmed by the mandolin in the Bach adaptation; it could get lost or sound two-dimensional against the orchestra’s rich backdrop, and frankly, I missed the sustained tones that held the mix together.

That Avital has reintroduced his rarely heard instrument to the concert hall is certainly worthy of accolades. He is widely credited, too, with revolutionizing the image of the mandolin and taking it far beyond the repertoire where, historically, it has been most at home. Since his Tonhalle programme featured an exclusively Baroque repertoire, however, any of us keen to hear him in new territory were rewarded only by the short Bulgarian folk tune he played as an encore.

After the interval, the orchestra played Beethoven’s Symphony no. 2 in D major, a work that premiered in Vienna in 1803 with Beethoven himself conducting. One invective tagged the symphony "a hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refuses to die … in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death".

While a theatrical escapade indeed, the Tonhalle Orchestra’s performance of the symphony was precise, confident, and infinitely clean. Following the work’s lyrical beginnings, the second movement was bright enough to qualify as “light-infused”, and the flute and oboe soli were especially uplifting. In the triumphant final movement, Maestro Antonini’s fervour for the music almost breeched into showiness, but none of us lacked for a truly invigorating performance.

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