If ever a musical offering was rousing, this one was it. The concert repertoire that Donald Runnicles conducted at the Tonhalle Maag earned that accolade handsomely, in no small part because his whole body became the baton.

Runnicles’ strong stature could arouse suspicion that he might once have been on a national football team; this is not the case, although the sheer physicality of the Scot’s engagement with the musicians was to his great credit: the energy emanated from the conductor’s core heightened the drama of the scores.

Donald Runnicles © Simon Pauly
Donald Runnicles
© Simon Pauly

For Edward Elgar’s tone poem, In the South (Alassio), Runnicles called up a cast of primeval forces, the horns and tympani marking what sounded like the footfall of an approaching beast. He bent down, swerved to the side and vigorously signalled the instrument sections. Half-way into the piece, the mood changed to something more soothing, and Gilad Karni’s viola solo played a lyrical serenade against the smooth swells of the full orchestra. Contrasting again, the fulminant ending of Elgar’s piece left all the string players' bows high in the air, raised as if for a war cry. The sense of drama was compelling. 

Alassio refers to the town on the Italian Riviera which inspired Elgar's piece. When first premiered in Halle, Germany, in 1904, the work was widely criticized for having little in common with either Italy or the South of Europe. In the Chicago Tribune one critic wrote: “It was not a successful cacophony as Richard Strauss at his most daring produces, but it will suffice.” 

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 15 in B flat was played with extraordinary pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist. This Concerto remains among the most challenging of Mozart's keyboard pieces, the composer himself having performed it at the 1784 premiere in Vienna. Yet Aimard mastered those legion demands with aplomb, and his many exchanges with other instruments were seamless. A short duet with the bassoon in the first movement felt inspired. The second movement, which began more slowly, expanded as if released through a peephole into a greater dimension. It also introduced a measure of syncopation and a melody repeated in many variations, which Aimard played crisply and cleanly. The third movement, marked by a playful and childlike nature, featured superb flute, bassoon and oboe solos in perfect symbiosis with the piano. Aimard apparently liked it immensely too, smiling whenever the piano score had a rest. 

Aimard marked the concerto’s various strains with a whole catalogue of facial expressions, showing everything from the wide, open-eyed delight of meeting a dear friend, to pursing his lips and sucking in as one does a soda straw. It was liveliness over and beyond the demands of the music, but added even greater vibrancy to the piece. 

The Tonhalle Orchester Zürich’s offer of two dynamic orchestral works by Richard Strauss came after the interval. Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks) moved from a virtual cosmos of hustle and bustle to include more serious images as slow, weighty counterpoint to the initial cacophony. In the romantic and harmonic passages, the orchestra relished the resolution of the work – a score that could be suitably used as a tear-jerking backdrop to a Hollywood movie. It was amusing to read a critique published in Boston after Till Eulenspiegel was performed there in 1900: “No gentleman would have written that thing. It is positively scurrilous. There are places for such music, but surely not before miscellaneous assemblages of ladies and gentlemen.”

Finally, the suite from Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier gave the audience heavenly moments, but also musically incorporated what one might call "mood swings". Oboist Kaspar Zimmermann shone in a brilliant solo, before the orchestral score went on to give us a palette ranging from the turbulent and revolutionary to a touch of Viennese waltz. Even the popular motif of the oom-pah-pah made an appearance, before the score turned so dense and complex that one felt the workings of some monumental power. Yet at one point, Runnicles simply stood on the podium in quiet repose, facing the players like an holy man, his hands turned upwards. He then superbly paced the boisterous, colourful peak that emerged out of nowhere as the finale, when all one could logically think was: what tremendous fun such music must be to master!