Frequently buried within orchestral textures, the viola hasn’t traditionally had an easy ride. Few composers have blessed this instrument with concertos. And then there is the plethora of jokes told about it. All the more reason then to be grateful to Tabea Zimmermann, doyenne of the viola, for arranging Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor for her own instrument. She certainly knows how to make the viola sing in all its registers. In the first movement especially there was a smoky quality to the low-lying parts which conjured up sounds of a husky voice coming from within some deep hidden garden bower. A caressing tenderness accompanied the ethereal qualities of the slow movement and in the lively Finale she emphasised its playful aspects, with an appropriate rhythmic uplift from the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Iván Fischer.

Tabea Zimmermann, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
© Daniel Dittus

Returning in the second half of the evening, Zimmermann was alive to all the post-Bartók influences of Kurtág’s Movement, the first part of that composer’s viola concerto. From a gentle whisper bordering on nothingness to a mighty roar, she fully demonstrated the versatility of her instrument, relishing the virtuoso writing in the alternations between busy solo work and the bold orchestral tutti. At times her viola sounded like a sturdy steed battling through inclement weather, a sense of travel weariness enhancing the haunting darkness as the work drew to a close.

Touring orchestras haven’t quite mastered the vagaries of performing in the Elbphilharmonie. Problems of balance were evident in the opening work, Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns, itself a comparative rarity. Even allowing for many a sour claim that this composer couldn’t orchestrate properly, the wind counterpoint often remained submerged. There is a case for entrusting a performance to the horn section of an orchestra whose ensemble work depends on being closely matched. However, the playing of the BFO section was a little on the cautious side, without exploiting the maximum vibrancy of the solo parts. In the central Romanze, with its echoes of the composer’s D minor symphony, its brooding quiddity was skated over in Fischer’s accompaniment.

Iván Fischer and Tabea Zimmermann
© Daniel Dittus

Two French pieces complemented this programme. Debussy’s intention in his Printemps, a suite originally written for wordless choir, piano and orchestra, was “to express the slow and laboured birth of beings and things in nature, their gradual blossoming, and finally the joy of being born into some new life.” The diaphanous characteristics at the start were wonderfully realised, like a giant butterfly slowly opening and spreading its wings before becoming airborne. However, at higher dynamic levels, particularly in the concluding Modéré movement, there was an unwelcome sharpness to the strings.

In the second suite from Daphnis et Chloë, the opening Lever du jour had an engaging earthiness, with darker and warmer string playing offset by a fine flute solo depicting the nymph Syrinx. Orgiastic climaxes do not always come off well in these clinical surroundings: there was plenty of control in the concluding Danse générale but not much in the way of Gallic sensuousness or voluptuousness for that matter. A case of a cool head in charge rather than a rapidly beating heart.

Right at the end of the evening’s proceedings, Fischer turned to the audience and announced that he and his musicians now wished to sing. Since German coronavirus protocols have again been tightened, this meant having to sing through their masks. So this hall was treated to the novelty of almost a hundred members of the BFO, tightly assembled around their conductor, singing a folk song by Dvořák a cappella, the melodic line quite unaffected by so many layers of face covering. Köszönöm