Concerts close to Christmas are sometimes a gamble. Caught between family responsibilities, company parties and last-minute shopping, concert-going sometimes falls a notch on the list of priorities. That might account some of the empty seats here in Zurich’s Tonhalle Maag this last Saturday before the holidays, despite the featured soloist being Janine Jansen, the virtuoso Dutch violinist and Artist-in-Residence at the Maag this year.

Janine Jansen
© Marco Borggreve

The Tonhalle Orchester Zürich started the programme with a bang, playing the short but colourful overture to Mikhail Glinka’s five-act opera Ruslan and Lyudmila,which premiered in St Petersburg in 1842. While rarely performed in full, the opera is best known for this rousing wake-up call. The timpani and horns raise the roof; dissonant chords in the middle section give us something foreboding, but the piece stands as a celebration by the end. Swedish Conductor Daniel Blendulf, who enjoys more than a decade’s relationship with the Tonhalle orchestra, showed himself an animated leader.

Jansen was then featured as soloist in Anders Eliasson’s Einsame Fahrt (Solitary Journey), a complex work which premiered in Stockholm in 2011, but here in Switzerland for the first time. The composer said of this work that he meant to “speak to (the listener), but pose challenges at the same time” in something radically different from the traditional major-minor tonalities and that went far beyond the realm of just entertainment. Before its start, the piece was briefly introduced from the podium by horn player Mischa Greuli, an idea which was new to this audience. He underscored the fact that we – even in the context of family, of friends and society at large – are always alone. We listen in solitary mode on our own journey through life; if anything unites humanity, it would be that each one of us, in the end, is alone. 

That said, the work proved to be its own “solitary” experience, posing an entirely new brand of tone language and harmonies, and for the soloist, highly demanding technically, both in respect to the fingering and the sounds they make. Yet just as Jansen sculpted out the dissonant intervals of notes on her “Rivaz, Baron Gutmann” Stradivarius (1707), she, too, was sculpture in motion, her black, fitted gown free-flowing around her. There were strong cues being passed back and forth between soloist and conductor and long, combustive sequences that appeared sheer cacophony, the violin emerging from a kind of frenzy. And oddly, the challenging work came to an end as bluntly as a steel beam falls flat on a stone floor.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony no. 5 in B flat major came after the interval. Written in a single month in 1944, it premiered in Moscow one year later “to celebrate the free and happy man, his mighty power, his nobleness and his spiritual purity”, according to the composer. In the opening Andante, the woodwinds triumphed, alternating between a tempered calm and the huge climatic development which makes this movement a real monster. The Allegro marcato verges on film music in its slinkier passage, causing the first viola and cello to exchange a smile, but it also carried something that spoke of a railroad gang and the tick-tock of timekeeping. The quieter, dreamlike third movement built up from what recalled the Juliet theme of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet but crashed into a tortuous ending. The closing Allegro giocoso highlighted the superb flute and a chorale on strings, an eventual frenzy that was both driven and shared by the conductor’s physicality. Even for a man in excellent condition, he looked exhausted, but the sound had been grand.