Having performed over the past four years in the Maag Halle, a provisional, offsite location in Zurich’s industrial quarter, concertgoers in Zurich were again welcomed to the beautifully restored architectural gem of the old Tonhalle, an illustrious hall on the city-side of the Lake of Zurich. “A room in which a fortissimo can be heard with full force, and even the slightest pianissimo can be heard clearly.” Such was the reputation of the audio advantages that the original architects erected and opened in 1895 as a great hall of an acknowledged "republican spirit”.

Zurich's newly renovated Tonhalle
© Gaëtan Bally

The superb restoration has markedly improved the hall’s appearance. It almost glows. All of the dust in its far-flung corners has gone, musty coverings of gold-gilt elements on balustrades and corners, removed. Having been, at some point, over-painted, the astonishingly beautiful pink marble of the pilasters has again been brought to light, and the ceiling’s stunning period paintings have been painstakingly refreshed. Moreover, there have been notable updates: the stage surface has been enlarged, a new organ and wooden floor installed, and the back-stage areas, collectively updated and improved. In short, the hall has had a face-lift of the very first order, and the result is stunning. Music Director Paavo Järvi’s hope for the restored hall of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich is that “rather than a temple, it becomes a kind of living room for the locals”. A high order that, although the restoration results and acoustics are startlingly beautiful. 

Paavo Järvi conducts the Tonhalle Orchestra
© Gaëtan Bally

Mahler’s Third Symphony – the first of Mahler's symphonies ever to be performed in Zurich – marked the opening of the Tonhalle back in 1895. As such, the choice of this week’s inaugural concert was almost a natural. “As I see it,” Järvi contended, “the Third is of the greatest of all musical works. It contains jaded feeling, every human question, so multilayered is the music.” What’s more, he cites the Third as Mahler’s most “hopeful symphony”. A worthy and well-deserved choice, not just pointing to a new generation of the Tonhalle’s history, but also coming on what we all hope are the heels of the pandemic. 

Ovation in the Tonhalle
© Gaëtan Bally

On the extended stage, the full Tonhalle orchestra, along with the women of both the Zürcher Singakademie and the boys of the Zürcher Singerknaben, had ample elbow room. Järvi faced the huge configuration as comfortably as if he were at a neighbourhood gathering. The work itself is as full of dynamism and emotions as the human condition itself, a kind of apotheosis that includes everything from an unforgivingly lyrical oboe to a frequent and highly Romantic push-pull of the strings. Mahler himself called the monumental work “A Summer’s Midday Dream”, one consisting of six movements of widely varying character and construction. 

From the start, the performance was full of powerful dynamism. In the more sparsely orchestrated fourth movement, Wiebke Lehmkuhl sang a compelling “Midnight Song”, almost like a prayer, ending in “all joy seeks deep, deep eternity.” In the penultimate movement, the boys’ choir and female choruses’ “Three Angels Sang” sounded like a configuration of bright bells, with a jolliness that was infectious. The last movement, which Mahler’s himself called “What Love Tells Me,” begins “with inanimate nature and ascends to the love of God”. There, the silvery flute was almost its own epiphany, the horns, too, unequalled in their clean and monumental playing. In short, the huge host of players under concertmaster Julia Becker heralded a new era for this beautifully renovated and acoustically unparalleled hall. It was hardly a surprise, on leaving the stunning hall, to overhear another concertgoer’s solemn promise: “I’ll be back.”