Musicians scurrying by with their high-tech instrument cases, small groups of listeners catching up with one another after the summer: already an hour before the concert began, there was a bustle in the Tonhalle Maag’s large industrial foyer at the start of “the season”. Expectations had been set high: works by Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler, whose revolutionary music pointed to the future, were to set the new seasons’s standard for excellence.

Janine Jansen © Marco Borggreve
Janine Jansen
© Marco Borggreve

Stepping in for the ailing Semyon Bychkov, Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste took to the podium. The concert began with Berg’s legendary Violin Concerto, “To the Memory of an Angel”, with Janine Jansen – the Tonhalle’s “Artist in Residence”this year – as soloist. 

The concerto was inspired by a tragedy. In 1934, Manon Gropius, who had been like a daughter to Alban Berg and his wife, had succumbed to polio at age 18. Berg interrupted work on his opera Lulu to pay tribute to this daughter of his close friends Alma Mahler (formerly Gustav Mahler’s wife) and architect Walter Gropius. Commissioned by the American violinist Louis Krasner, the concerto was premiered in Barcelona in 1936, shortly after Berg’s own death. As such, the piece is a requiem for the girl, but also one in which Berg heralds his own mortality, freely interpreting – and to a degree, loosening – the twelve-tone style of his mentor, Arnold Schoenberg.  

Janine Jansen took total command of her “Rivas, Baron Gutmann” Stradivarius like a mother guides a child: forwarding, disciplining, relishing. In the first two movements, she almost danced with her instrument, ably engaging with the players and passing subtle cues back and forth with the conductor. Near the start of the second movement she was bolstered by the brilliant horn, and even under the treacherous demands of her part, was always very much present both in resonance and posture. Indeed, the splashes of colour and golden thread she gave her score were even echoed in her lovely garment: a blue-black gown whose skirt carried a striking, broad vertical band like the course of a burning comet. Finally, and in contrast to the first two, Berg’s third and fourth movements were marked by a more distinctively peaceful, mottled palette, which inspired tremendous sympathy and appreciation.

The second half of the programme was devoted to Mahler’s grandiose Ninth Symphony, the composer’s last completed work. While some consider the Ninth to be a premonition of Mahler’s impending death in 1911, others read it more as an affirmation of life and nature, of which death is but an integral part. The symphony’s juxtaposition of different styles and tonalities and range of musical expressions reflect the hallmarks of Mahler’s late style, and it comes as no surprise that Berg admired his predecessor greatly. Indeed, he refered to the Ninth’s luminous first movement as a "call to the hereafter” for good reason: dimensions are explored that seem to have no earthly equivalent. 

In Zurich, Concertmaster Andreas Janke gave pointed direction to the strings, and full configuration of the orchestra was to feature some fine solo interludes. The flute regularly shone through like a star ascending. 

The symphony’s second movement is marked by the gaiety of two Ländler that frame a waltz. Theodor W. Adorno cited these as “wild vulgarisms”, but to anyone who loves to kick up their heels, the liveliness of the score is terrifically appealing. The first of the two fast movements at the heart of the symphony was infectious, even though the conductor seemed modest in his award of cues to individual sections. The third movement, Rondo Burlesque was almost carnival-like in its boisterous energies while, by marked contrast, the last movement was slow and sublime, its final measures quieting and fading into the distance as if into the great void of death itself. Schoenberg wrote this: “It seems that the Ninth is the limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away”. The transcendentals resolutions that married the Berg and Mahler for the launch of this new Tonhalle season reminded us that invariably, all good things must come to an end.