Works by Bartók, Shostakovich and Dvořák recently performed at Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag made for a House of Horrors, paid tribute to soloist Vilde Frang’s extraordinary string technique and insured a superb concert experience. From the podium, Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare’s unmitigated athleticism was part and parcel of the excitement.

Vilde Frang
© Marco Borggreve

Bela Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, which premiered as a ballet n Cologne in 1926, was described by the composer himself as “hellish music, a thieves’ den at the height of the hurly-burly of the metropolis”. Here in Zurich, a superb oboe and seductive, sliding clarinet were both unleashed in ways that would have made even the great Benny Goodman cry. Peter Solomon’s piano relished full slides across the octaves; concertmaster Andreas Janke’s haunting violin could raise the hair on your forearms. The full score made for a pandemonium of sound that was sometimes even grotesque in its sliding scales, alternating colours, hustle-bustle rhythms, and dense textures. But while tremendously boisterous in sound, the piece was also precisely and tightly stitched, the conductor’s spirited animation making it almost a piece of finely-wrought theatre.

Norwegian soloist Vilde Frang tackled Dimitri Shostakovich’s demanding Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor. The work, which premiered in St Petersburg in 1955, survived initial objections to its “formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people”. Here at the Tonhalle Maag, the violin began in an elegiacal strain, but quickly built a strong single line that overrode even the huge body of players, her part possibly portraying the struggle of one against the many. 

In the second movement, Frang pushed the tempi in some instances, while Payare bent over towards the players in a riveting musical conversation. The soloist’s demanding cadenza in the third movement was played with finesse that made it almost celestial. In the momentous finale, Frang tended her instrument like a wild witch at a bubbling cauldron, and took repeated bows to a jubilant audience afterwards, while insisting on including all her fellow musicians in the accolades, a gesture both humbling and endearing.

Played last, Antonin Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor, which premiered in London under the direction of the composer in 1885, includes a wealth of thematic ideas, both lyrical genre and monumental. Dressed in sweeping formal tails, Payare showed an original conducting style. Trained as a horn player, and as an alumnus of the Sistema programme and a former member of the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, he moves like a lithe dancer, showing unprecedented energy, in service to the music. The symphony’s triumphal beginning features the horns at their best, and later explores the Bohemian idiom as well as traditional European harmonies – a fusion of old and new, proven and bravado. Considering Dvořák as an innovator, Johannes Brahms would credit him with this: “From his leftovers alone, one could concoct any number of main themes”. Well said, and the Zurich configuration under Payare was well deserving of the same accolades.