Given that the orchestra’s chief conductor Paavo Järvi was down with Covid, Lionel Bringuier, who held the same post 2014–2018, kindly stepped in to fill the gap. First on the evening’s programme, and solidly underscored by a full Tonhalle Orchestra, the gifted Norwegian violinist, Vilde Frang, was the soloist in Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, “To the Memory of an Angel”. Commissioned by the celebrated American violinist, Louis Krasner, the 1935 work was meant as a tribute to Manon Gropius, Alma and Walter Gropius’s 18-year old daughter, who had died of polio a year earlier. As it happened, Berg himself died of blood poisoning in 1936, before he ever heard the work performed.

Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

Lasting some 22 minutes, the concerto is a highly complex work, one that demands Herculean efforts on the part of the soloist, its challenging score underpinned by the dissonances of 12-tone technique. While Berg had simply stated that the work reflected “what I was feeling”, conductor Otto Klemperer, who premiered it in Barcelona in April 1936, once offered that “the sounds that emanate from the violin bring into being a completely new world for the instrument... and seem to span the cosmos.” Even to today’s ear, the work presents numerous technical and pacing challenges, but Frang mastered them unequivocally, her sovereign command of the violin being just as stunning as the work itself is sublime. The sparkle of her silver gown was fully in keeping with her performance: she just shone. The rapport between her and the orchestra was visibly harmonious, even convivial.

Sergei Rachmaninov’s richly orchestrated Symphony No. 3 in A minor dates from the same period. The composer, often considered the last expression of a tradition still entrenched in 19th-century musical idioms, served up Romantic dimensions in an era of explosive change and experimentation. His Third Symphony – often cited for its great economy compared to the two symphonies that preceded it – is often referred to as his “most expressively Russian Symphony” inasmuch as its finale’s dance score is as rhythmic as it is uplifting. Having been premiered under conductor Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia in November, 1936, the work’s initial reception was discouraging; even today, audiences are less familiar with this work than with the composer’s monumental first and second symphonies.

Having emigrated to California to flee the Nazi regime, Rachmaninov succumbed to blood poisoning in 1942 and, as such, his repertoire is limited. But he counted this work among his finest and here in Zurich, the Tonhalle gave a stunning performance that was as fulminant as it was filled with light. Shortly after its beginnings, the oboe and flute excelled particularly in the great push-pull of sounds, and Bringuier’s direction was as tight as a tick. Most memorably in the second movement, the exuberant tuba’s launch was striking; concertmaster Andreas Janke expounded upon a degree of sentimentality with his violin; and the playing of the solo flute, oboe and clarinet was full of colour. The third movement began almost like a bombast of a Star Wars score and Bringuier’s gestures and precise cues underscored a soundscape of an almost galactic dimension. That he generously returned to the conductor’s podium for this concert at such short notice is to be gratefully commended and the orchestra deserves the warmest accolades, too, for theirs was a rousing, precise and extraordinarily up-beat performance.