All eyes were on pianist Yuja Wang as she came out to the piano in a backless, neon-green gown against the backdrop of her fellow musicians, all in formal blacks. Even Johannes Brahms, whose portrait hovered above us in the ceiling fresco of the hall, cast an eye down at the stage. Of the composers depicted there – Handel, Bach, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner – only Brahms was both living and present at the inauguration of the Tonhalle in 1895. He later conducted here and stayed in active dialogue with a number of Swiss musicians throughout his life.

Lionel Bringuier © Paolo Dutto
Lionel Bringuier
© Paolo Dutto

No stranger to the Tonhalle herself, Wang launched into the Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major like a Chinese firecracker, and began the 45 or so minutes of a piece that is considered one of the most demanding in the piano repertoire. Lionel Bringuier moderated the tempo of the first movement, while Wang was clearly pushing it to something more quickly paced. While her attacks were powerful, her rendition even verging on aggressive, she and the orchestra gained greater cohesion in the second movement, and the lilting tunes of the peasant dance-like theme even found the first viola swaying in his seat.

Cellist Thomas Grossenbacher pulled on the heart strings with an unparalleled emotive power in the melancholy solo at the beginning of the third movement. I would gladly give up a week’s summer holiday to hear those three minutes of his lyrical cello all over again. The solo oboe also shone here, its crystal clear, descending melody in a syncopated play-off with the piano. In the fourth movement, the swells of a Viennese waltz alternated which might, in another era, have been the expansive score of a Hollywood film. But by then, I fully understood pianist Philippe Bianconi’s assessment of this concerto: “Everything about it, the four-movement structure, the texture, the way the piano is integrated into the orchestral fabric… it is really a symphony with principal piano.”

Yuja Wang has said she works in response to a higher power that directs her hands; they simply know where to go and all she has to do is follow. This seemed the case at the Zurich hall, for while she made a beautiful study in correct posture at the piano, the frequent swiping of her bangs out of her face, adjusting her halter top, and tapping her fingers on her thigh when she wasn’t actually playing showed her decidedly at ease on the stool. She may be so inspired, she does what she has to do, and there’s no question of her mastery of technique, but I missed something of the poetry of Brahms in her playing.

After the break, we heard Brahms’ First Symphony, which premiered in Karlsruhe in 1876, following some 15 years of struggle over it on the part of the composer. Much like Schumann, Brahms had been somewhat crippled by using Beethoven as his model. Considered a “destiny symphony” – alluding to the poet Friedrich Hölderin’s line, “Yet it is our destiny, never to find place to rest” – the First makes that persuasion palpable in its gloomy first movement, whose principal melodies came from the oboe, flute and violas, but are underpinned by rolling timpani. With Bringuier opening his arms to appeal to his players much like a Southern Baptist minister at a huge prayer meeting, the orchestra produced a singularly resonant and unified sound.

The solo oboe in the second movement was another stunner, and the movement opened up to a breadth and depth that reminded me of a painting by William Turner. The third movement too, full of colour and dynamism, was marked by transformations from the small and contained in the strings’ pizzicato, to the sheer tumult of what was big and bravado.

Throughout, it was clear that the tightly wired Bringuier was taking care not to let the volume get out of hand. After the mystical, otherworldly and tempered passages preceding them, even the more bombastic parts of the fourth movement were nicely calibrated to the dimensions and capacity of the Zurich hall. Surely from his portrait perch over our heads, a grateful Herr Brahms would be quick to give his approval.

***11