The three works selected all shared the distinction of having been composed by men in their younger years. Shostakovich composed the evening’s first offer when he was just 19; Beethoven crafted the other two works featured when he was close to 30. Unlikely a juxtaposition as the two composers might have seemed, the concert in Zurich attracted a large audience − in no small part because the Turkish-born pianist, composer, and architect Fazil Say, ZKO’s current “Artist in Residence,” was the featured soloist.

Fazil Say © Marco Borggreve
Fazil Say
© Marco Borggreve

Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet was strikingly good, containing the same dissonant harmonies and contrapuntal patterns that are characteristic of Shostakovich’s later work. The Prelude begins with somewhat awkward lines, repeated by all the string groups in succession, but soon enters an engine-like propulsion that never loses momentum. The speed and density of the Prelude were almost ferocious: the work, perhaps, of a brilliant, but physically frail young composer who was keen to bring out in sound what he himself lacked in muscle. The Scherzo’s fire-like frenzy ends on a resonant cello line, while the concertmaster nailed the challenging high notes. Some of the notes that fell to Willi Zimmermann were terrifically high, but in his fine rendition, they were hardly screaming.

In Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, Fazil Say approached his first cue with a vengeance. A man of extraordinary talents, Say has a long association with Zurich. He looks less robust and more clean-shaven today, having trimmed the wild mane of his younger years, but his playing remains emotive, imaginative and largely non-conformist. I admire Say’s unequivocally headstrong approach to classical repertoire. But in the very first strains, the two first chords of the familiar score were muddy, and his volume throughout most of that movement overpowered the entire orchestra. Fortunately, at the end of the Allegro he tempered those explosives with an entirely different expression, unconventionally playing a whole passage as if it were drawn, precious and scintillating, from the strains of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

In the final Rondo, the pianist showed the best of his ability to play music of great depth and overriding sensuality. From the bench, he often used hand gestures to “underscore” what he wanted from the orchestra; to say nothing of using the facial expressions and singing to himself for which he is notorious. But no question: he is a highly physical performer overall.

Beethoven’s First Symphony showed the ZKO at its best, and was sheer delight to listen to. The work betrays the god-fatherly influence of Josef Haydn, particularly in its ebullient opening and final movement, and was described by Beethoven’s contemporaries as “insured, powerful, original and difficult”. The ZKO’s was a muscular performance, and concertmaster Willi Zimmerman was quick to use his own body as a conductor’s baton, standing up from his chair to give his direction better visibility. The first movement starts “in the wrong key, not arriving at a C for about 20 bars,” says conductor Sir Roger Norrington in an interview. “It was meant to startle people”. But that unexpected start made for a dramatic beginning that today’s audiences take to like bees to honey.

The vibrant second movement showed itself as the most “sing-able” and melodic of the four, while the third invited us to step up to a dance, the clarinet luring us in convincingly. Finally, starting with a unison violin line and slowly building, the fourth movement gave way to a wake-up call of the woodwinds, the lyrical alternating with the militaristic.

Well done, ZKO! Here was Beethoven in all his glory, non-conformist tendencies aside. Oboist Rosemary Yiameos shone, as did Felix Renggli on his mellow wooden flute. Cellist Nicola Mosca beamed over his solo in the fourth movement, firmly embedded in the carpet of sound that put him at the very centre of the players’ circle. The configuration on stage − slightly more “rounded” in its seating arrangement than is customary − saw the group as the music’s spokesperson: craftsmen and -women entirely in the service of the symphony. And with its long suspended transitions, fine interludes, and hints at the ethereal, the Beethoven work returned the favour by pointing handsomely to the ZKO’s fine musical talents.