First up on the programme in the new and provisional Tonhalle Maag was Joseph Haydn’s Symphony no. 49 in F minor. Often referred to as “La Passione”, the work was apparently so dubbed because any non-liturgical piece would have been ousted from the 1768 competition in which Haydn wanted it entered. In fact, its theatrical provenance is nicely in keeping with the bulk of the composer’s other works, although cited in this case as “generally pessimistic”. The opening movement moves from thread-like delicate to highly robust in record time, and the second movement, too, is marked by major and dramatic contrasts in volume.

Omer Meir Wellber © Tato Baeza
Omer Meir Wellber
© Tato Baeza

Working from memory and without a score, Omer Meir Wellber conducted in a kind of eclectic modern dance. In the second movement and to signal the rolling waves of the strings, he rotated his hand in the air as if on the handle of oversized meat grinder; in the last movement, he raised and moved his arms as if gripping an enormous, moving gear-wheel. But these literal interpretations were too exaggerated for my taste; I thought they called attention to him and away from the music itself.

This was not the case in Sofia Gubaidulina’s cosmic Triple concerto for violin, violincello and bayan, however, the demanding piece next on the programme that kept all eyes on the score. Commissioned jointly by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, the NDR Philharmonic Hannover and the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra, the triple concerto seemed almost to hail from another planet. The bayan, a Russian folk instrument, opened it with a series of repeated, haunting chords along with the drone of a tuba, was given to “breathe” through a kind of dense tonal jelly. Later, pulsating rhythms culminated in the cataclysmic; the viola scraped tones upward like a metal plate along the shin bone; the strings’ beehive sound being the only remnant of real nature as we know it. 

Encouraged as a student in Moscow by Dmitri Shostakovich, Gubaidulina clearly took his advice: “continue on your own incorrect path”. Like life itself, her score expands and contracts, traversed by the other instruments’ material muscle and rhythmic fibre. Soloist Vadim Gluzman’s violin masterfully stirred up pathos, and he met the gruelling demands of timing consistently well. And Johannes Moser’s cello, particularly in the dialogue with the violin three quarters through the piece, was a marvel of fine technique, but it also evoked a sense of trying to extract a voice from a miasma of despair. Finally, Elsbeth Moser’s bayan – sometimes like a muffled organ – centered and brought the multiple trajectories back to base. The orchestra’s horns also deserve particular mention, since they served as a reminder of hope and light. Shostakovich himself would have liked the contrasts between chromatic haze and the vibrant march, which opened it everything up near the end to sheer luminosity.

After the interval, it was Johannes Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor, a work the composer liked to cite as an homage to Beethoven, and which was premiered in 1876. As with the Haydn, Wellber conducted from memory. While that marked an innate familiarity with this monumental symphony, he sometimes overlooked cues to some of the instrument groups. Fortunately, this particular orchestra has the Brahms repertoire in its bones; making a delivery that differed little from the recording most of the players made with David Zinman back in 2014. In any case, their musical output here was hands-down sublime; the effect of the bravado on the podium is harder to measure.