Lionel Bringuier is the young French conductor whom Zurich’s Tonhalle Orchestra members selected unanimously as their new conductor. He succeeds the venerable David Zinman, who retired last year, leaving a great legacy of his 29-year tenure: recordings he had steered of the great symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler. Not surprisingly, the new conductor was eager to set a mark in another direction by turning his efforts to include French composers, among others, determined that they should also be given their due.

Lionel Bringuier © Jonathan Grimbert-Barré
Lionel Bringuier
© Jonathan Grimbert-Barré

Accordingly, Maurice Ravel’s lyrical Menuet antique launched the evening’s programme. Composed in 1895, the original solo piano version was first orchestrated by the composer in 1929. While hardly a “minuet” nor really “antique”, the piece was composed as a tribute to Emmanuel Chabrier, the composer who had helped Ravel establish his musical reputation. According to the programme notes, the Menuet is an early example of the composer’s non-conformity: seemingly “going along” with the rules while at the same time, effectively breaking them. Foremost, he abandons the notion of a Leitmotif in favour of lyrical sequences of and a kaleidoscope of tonal variation and colour.

Hard to believe, given its familiarity, but this infinitely likeable work had never been performed at the Tonhalle before, and all eyes were on Bringuier to bring it to fruition. The piece started out joyously, vibrant and promising. The oboe kept us mesmerized, the bassoon paced its militaristic elements demonstrably, and there was a handling of volume that was subtler than that in the second half of the concert. I, for one, missed an “exhilaration factor” here, and ultimately found the piece that was a fairly standard rendition of a nice little package. Overall, it lacked the expected colour.

By contrast, Nelson Freire’s performance in Chopin’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in F minor was a tour de force. The work was written between 1829 and 1830 at a time when Chopin was 19 years old, but is considered one of the most demanding of his whole piano repertoire. While at the start, Freire was trying pull the orchestra along a little faster than Bringuier wanted it to go, the marriage soon became a successful one. The Brazilian pianist gave way to the various virtuosi soli, seamlessly “scooping up” his line when they faded, almost as if the piano were a kind of mother ship the boats could always come home to.

Bringuier also did a superlative job of consistently affirming a whole of the many parts. He conducts in a way that leaves little room for misinterpretation; his cues are tight and spot on. Interestingly, barring the passages that are chock full of variations in tempi, he is also is fairly economic in his conducting style. Unlike others of his contemporaries, he has little fall-off-the-podium potential. His focus is all on the orchestra, except when − like a boy having done a good deed − he turns around to take a bow, grinning widely at the appreciative audience.

Before this piece, there had been a terrifically long break to accommodate the logics of getting a piano on the Tonhalle stage, and a complete reseating of the orchestra members. That aside, the Chopin was beautifully performed. Rolled out like a silk scarf, Freire measuring his pace and alternated the most tender moments with those of a highly exuberant flair. In the first Maestoso, the dream-like sounds he pulled out made you think you could see the stars come out at night. The Larghetto was saturated with a romantic light, reminding me of the “summer afternoon” that Heny James considered the two most beautiful words in the English language. Finally, the third movement Allegro vivace included the stunning dialogue between piano and the silvery flute of Sabine Poyé Morel, who enjoys almost a cult following here in Zurich. Even in a single plaintive line, Freire brought out the true colour of melodies we all know so well, much like the central motif of a fine watercolour might seep out into porous paper with surprisingly subtle effects.

Last in the programme, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, also known as the symphonie choréographique, was like a huge river of sound that shook the house to its very foundations. It was too loud, but the marker set by the fine orchestra of 100 players joined by a 70-member choir certainly made for a rich texture. Concertmaster Andreas Janke’s solo was as full of pathos, and was followed almost immediately by a playful orchestra sound whose random explorations might even call “quirky”. The trumpet whined as convincingly as Paris in the 1930s, while Thomas Grossenbacher’s unmistakably intelligent cello emerged from the mosaic of various instruments to start yet another elegiacal conversation. Under Tim Brown's superb direction, the choir’s simple monosyllabic score gave proof that fine music – if sung or played expertly − usually looks like it’s easy to produce.

And the audience viscerally responded to the piece. After the hugely bombastic ending, one young concert visitor near me burst out just two words, “Holy Moly!” I feel sure Bringuier would be pleased.