The evening began with Beethoven’s Egmont, a set of incidental pieces composed after Goethe’s eponymous play that celebrated the heroism of a 16th-century patriot from the Low Countries. Beethoven apparently identified with Egmont, a character who made a brave stand against oppression. Almost as if to herald that conviction, and after a demonstrative opening by the strings, a sublime solo oboe sounded like a lone call in the wilderness.

Frank Peter Zimmermann © Harald Hoffmann | Hänssler Classic
Frank Peter Zimmermann
© Harald Hoffmann | Hänssler Classic

Manfred Honeck (stepping in at short notice for the indisposed Bernard Haitink) mirrored the music’s distinctive mood changes with vigorous and changing postures and quick gestures throughout the short piece. So too, did he command tight adherence to the composer’s braiding and swelling of melodies. The musicians mastered the spirited tempo of the piece, and seemed to relish its bombastic, triumphant ending, which is easily interpreted as the victory of the oppressed. When the work was premiered in 1810, even Goethe praised Beethoven for accurately expressing his intentions with “remarkable genius”.

But here in Zurich, it was Frank Peter Zimmermann’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major that stole the show. Zimmermann is no stranger to Zurich; he debuted with the Tonhalle Orchestra as far back as March 1983, and last played with them here in May 2014 under Christoph von Dohnányi’s baton. Zimmermann gave us a superb Bartók no. 1 and Ravel Tzigane back then, but the Beethoven concerto he played now felt something like part of his own constitution, much like his own DNA. 

Beethoven premiered the piece in 1806 in Vienna. This, his sole concerto for an instrument other than piano, was written for Franz Clement, a fine violinist of the time who had helped him in assessing his fledgling Fidelio. The concerto’s première hardly went well, however; poor reviews left the work shuffled aside and seldom performed in the years following. Indeed, it only enjoyed popularity well after the composer’s death.

Zimmermann, both as musician and man, takes up a lot of the stage. He looks like a woodsman and plays with musical explosives but can change his expression and tonality as easily as water slips into a glass. While many violinists consider Beethoven’s concerto one of the most difficult in the instrument's literature, it would hardly daunt him. And unlike other soloists, Zimmermann took a democratic approach: rather than wait the first few minutes for the soloist’s usual entrance, he played right along with the orchestra from the start, a convivial gesture that set the stage for the give and take that was part of his wiring. And when the first movement ended on its great burst of tutti, close to a third of the audience broke into loud applause despite itself. 

In long stretches where the violin simply accompanies the orchestra, Zimmermann somewhat pushed the tempi, accelerating what was already a fast pace. But he was entirely relaxed and had a rapport both with his instrument – the remarkable 1711 “Lady Inchiquin” Stradivarius – and with the players, that was infectious. In the commanding position, he often exercised almost a brute force on his bowing to attain the sound he wanted but could also move in a heartbeat from such bravado to a quiet prayer. In the second movement, the tempo slowed markedly, and to the rapt attention of the audience, Zimmermann let his Lady tell a story. He delighted in her syncopated measures, and the orchestra’s fine support. From the stage, too, the musicians themselves applauded him openly at his final bow. 

After the interval, Brahms' Fourth (and final) Symphony was last on the programme. Premiering the work in 1885 in Meiningen, the composer had misgivings about it at first, although history has proven it one of his most innovative expressions. In the past, the Fourth has always fit the superb Tonhalle Orchestra like a velvet glove, and indeed, all four movements were played with upmost precision and attention to texture. Oddly, however, the silvery acoustic of the temporary Provisorium often made the overall effect too loud for my taste. Apparently, Brahms was confident enough about this work when it premiered to say “I don’t give a damn about the complaints.” I hope he’d say the same about my one caution in an otherwise superb concert.