Why did the crowd come out in droves to the Tonhalle on a cold winter’s evening? Was it the star allure of the British-South African violinist, Daniel Hope? The fact that he was sharing the bill with the equally gifted “local” musician – Willi Zimmerman, concertmaster of the Zurich Chamber Orchestra (ZKO)? Or was it simply the promise of Bach and Vivaldi’s “greatest hits”? Hard to say, but uncontested is that this Baroque programme met with a tremendously positive reception.

Daniel Hope © Harald Hoffmann | DG
Daniel Hope
© Harald Hoffmann | DG

The ZKO holds the value of telling music’s story high, and informally shares information about pieces being performed. Such an introduction is commendable: it makes the various works and players more accessible to the audience and personalizes the experience of the concert overall. Violist Frauke Tometten welcomed the public by explaining that the orchestra had recently toured among four South African cities to “standing ovations”, Hope’s hometown of Durban among them. That Zurich had made good abroad was music to everybody’s ears, so as such, the concert started out − forgive the pun − on a fine note.

We began with an unexpected addition: Vivaldi’s Concerto Grosso in D minor RV565. The short piece gave a taste of what was to come and a chance to compare the two soloists’ different performance styles. While sometimes nodding his head like a boy − at the same time conducting in his function as concertmaster − Zimmermann was much more the familiar, if rather physically restrained, figure. Hope, who bounced hard on his music’s down beats and turned on every axis over energetic tremolos, helped craft an evening that became even more theatrical as it progressed.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s sublime Double Concerto for Two Violins, composed between 1717 and 1723 and scored for the soloists, strings and basso continuo, is considered a quintessential late Baroque composition and is certainly one of the composer’s most famous works. The two violins’ highly expressive play means that they often share their material in close alteration, weaving textures that are markedly human for their tenderness and compassion. While the two soloists were equal musical partners in the second movement, the Largo, Hope made elaborate variations on the subtle harmonies, repetitions and rich fabric of the familiar score. The genre justifies his doing so, but his line actually dropped a couple of times for his drawing such elaborate musical tracery. Zimmermann, on the other hand, was our strong and steady pole. I would only fault him for conceding, at the end of the Largo, to slowing the tempo demonstrably to what felt like pulling a basketball through a Dixie cup.

Up next, another concerto from Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico never failed to startle. It began with a virtual whisper, and went on to include sounds that could only be likened to life on a railroad track. Hope leaned over his shoulder at least once, serenading the harpsichordist; the theorbo player was having such a fine time that he was stomping his foot as if at a pop concert. Again, however, I was struck most by how Zimmermann, with a single elegant sweep of his bow through the air or by raising a few fingers above his violin’s bridge, was signalling clear directions to the players.

After the break, the audience eagerly awaited Vivaldi’s The Fours Seasons, which Daniel Hope cleverly introduced. He explained how each of the evening’s major works paid homage to his teacher and mentor, Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he had studied all three. Then, by comparing the current Swiss banking crisis to the South Sea Bubble in London’s early 18th century, he suggested that Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos pending were a fitting metaphor for Zurich’s financial landscape: “Spring” was the turbulence the banks had encountered, “Summer” was the excitement of the scandal, ”Autumn” marked coming to terms with the fact, and“Winter” foreshadowed the outcome of the EU’s pact over shortcomings in Greece.

There was a good laugh, as the Seasons struck out into a dialogue between the two solo violins. If I had to find one word to describe this interpretation, though, it would be “muscular”. Hope bevelled that sensation into place almost from the very start. In “Spring”, he squeezed out notes in the higher register and bowed with a passionate fervour that would be hard matched by any instrumentalist. The last movement’s parry with Zimmermann was as argumentative as between two trusting friends, and Hope’s priceless 1742 Guarneri del Gèsu’s sounds ranged from a whisper to the strains of a hurdy-gurdy.

The Italo-Romantic sound featured in “Summer” brought to my mind’s eye a rose vendor peddling at a restaurant table. Nevertheless, the “hum” of the concerto kept the rapt attention of the audience. In “Autumn”, with a slide that was inexcusably oily, he once seemed to emulate the clarinet solo in the first measures of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and the third movement, oddly enough, took on all the colour of Klezmer or an exuberant peasant dance. “Winter” began with the strings’ unsettling scratch of icicles. While the others went about their usual business − harpsichordist Johannes Keller and Nicola Mosca’s solo cello both masterful in their precision −  Hope gyrated, bent, twisted and paused, playing his whole body as his instrument.

The crowd loved the performance. Hope gave the Tonhalle audience a shot in the arm, even relying on an iPad for his notation rather than a traditional printed score. In sum, though, while what I saw and heard was a superbly virtuoso violinist, this was one with a healthy portion of rock star and block-buster film score specialist in the mix.