At the Zurich Tonhalle, Arvo Pärt’s moving Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten was first on Wednesday's programme. As a tribute crafted to commemorate what Pärt cited as “the usual purity of (Britten’s) music,” the short piece begins with three bell tolls, almost like a call to attention, and continues in layers of continually-descending scales. These create an effect of endless falling, but also give a sense of quiet contemplation and sadness. The fabric of the work increasingly thickens and gains volume; then one after one, all the voices end on a single resonating chord. When the work concluded here, the Tonhalle audience seemed mesmerised, and simply sat still for almost half-a-minute before breaking into hearty applause. 

Rudolf Buchbinder
© Marco Borggreve

The fine Austrian pianist Rudolf Buchbinder performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, a monumental work considered one of the real pinnacles of the piano repertoire. At its 1808 premiere, Beethoven himself was the soloist. The Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung review described it as “the most admirable, singular and artistic and complex Beethoven concerto ever written.” Given that, it seems odd that the concerto was neglected until Felix Mendelssohn revived it in 1836. 

The Zurich audience were fortunate to hear the concerto under optimal circumstances, with superb performers. In the first movement, Buchbinder’s playing was light and precise, exchanges marked by crystal clear definition and lyricism. In the Andante con moto, he portrayed a kind of dream sequence that had the effect of fairy dust strewn, but as equally, heavier passages were demonstrative and powerful. In the Rondo finale, Buchbinder's craft was both gentle and the forceful, making a seamless bridge between the two that was echoed by the Tonhalle Orchester. Motifs and echoes were passed back and forth, and Buchbinder was not beyond giving a nod and a broad smile.

After the interval, Paavo Järvi and his orchestra played Anton Bruckner’s pulsing Symphony no. 6 in A major, a four-movement work composed between 1879 and 1881. The Sixth, premiered by the Vienna Philharmonic in Graz, 1899, differs somewhat from the rest of Bruckner’s symphonic repertory and received a “somewhat bewildered” reaction in its day. The Tonhalle’s performance was a highly athletic and muscular, sometimes verging on too loud for the hall. Järvi maintained a highly concentrated poise, despite the magnitude of the score and its dynamics. As in the other Bruckner symphonies, the Sixth thrives on its powerful build-ups and all-consuming energies: in the first movement, the elegant flute bridges the latent themes, while tuba, timpani and horns go on to boost the bombast factor. 

The second movement began with a richly-woven fabric of instruments, and the melancholy voice of a fine solo oboe. Järvi often marked his direction with big gestures, alternating them with almost boyish antics, and seeming even to “dance” to some of the more melodic interludes: enthusiasm that was infectious. In the last movement, the horns had an absolute heyday; their explosive playing might well have brought less-reserved listeners to their feet. We stayed seated, of course, but were left convinced, not only of the merits of Bruckner as a vibrant composer, but by orchestral playing of such precision and excellence. 

You can watch this performance on from 28 January 2023