For the season’s second Philharmonia orchestral concert at the Zurich opera house, Maestro Fabio Luisi conducted a programme of works by the Russian composer Sofia Gibaidulina, the Swiss Jean-Luc Darbellay and the omnipresent Gustav Mahler. Fittingly, all three works reflected the elements – wind, water, earth and energy – that are integral to the alpine experience the Swiss and their visitors know and love.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller © Chris Gonz
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
© Chris Gonz

Gubaidulina’s powerful concerto “In tempus praesens” was composed specifically for the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, who premiered it to great acclaim at the Lucerne Festival in 2007. Mutter commends what she considers its exquisite balance – between a cerebral “compositional noblesse” and “an emotional depth” – that puts Gubaidulina’s work “in a class by itself”. When Mutter released the exclusive rights to perform the piece some two years ago, the Philharmonia Zürich was quick to pick it up for its 2014 repertoire.

The work puts Herculean demands on the soloist – here Bartlomiej Niziol, the orchestra’s concertmaster, who undertook what I calculated as almost 30 uninterrupted minutes of a very muscular performance. What’s more, the solo violin is the only violin on stage in the piece; a “stand-alone” that has the string instruments in the lower registers defer to its breath-taking virtuosity. Niziol’s line cut through the fibre of the orchestral sound like a zipper and reached exquisite peaks with extraordinary bow work; he could fire up explosives as readily as constrain the music’s energy. What’s more, he made his fine instrument an extension of his person, a grounded, but high-wired body.

Gubaidulina’s composition was greatly affected by a restrictive and artistically stifling Russian regime, and in one part of the concerto, the soloist suffers the “bars” of close to 40 unmitigated downbeats that come at regular intervals of every six or seven seconds. The violin’s voice is smaller, but steadily twists and turns inside those markers, as if trying to find itself as a conscious entity inside the “bars”. Like the Leningrad Symphony of Shostakovich – who encouraged Gubaidulina “to be fearless, and be yourself“ when Stalinism incriminated her and blocked her works’ performance – the weight of Soviet oppression has been made tangible in sound. At the end of her piece, the violin’s last lyrical tones struggle for survival, but “the present” slowly fades out into the void.

By contrast, Jean-Luc Darbellay’s work Trittico is a visual transcription of movement over a raw and exposed alpine landscape. At the start the listener hears a whisper coming from elsewhere, but cannot identity its source. A light “wind” then comes up, whistling over rocky ground, playing in the brush on the magical mountainside.

Soloist Olivier Darbellay – son of the composer – played a progression of three featured horns – alphorn, natural horn, and French horn – with aplomb. Sometimes a lone oboe would pick up a note from the alphorn and continue it, or light brass would make the fog that the plaintive natural horn could strike through. Metallic and wooden percussion made a wide spectrum of tonal colours behind the soloist. Luisi often asked for a quieter sound, widening the contrast between the mysterious wispiness, then sudden fury, of the alpine experience. The composer, too, spoke to the players on the “sensitivity” of the piece, calling his work “all about air, earth, water,” and asking them to “let the trees grow.” And grow, they did.

The concert’s final piece was Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the last of the “Wunderhorn” symphonies whose single song, "Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life) is sung in its entirety by a solo soprano in the fourth movement. Mahler referred to this work as his “humoresque”. Indeed, it does intertwine levels of earnestness and what is childlike and playful: its opening sleigh bells alone set the tone. Over highly confident beginnings, Luisi used much more of his body to set the pace than he had for the contemporary works. Yet the first movement lost a little of its lustre half way through, the familiar push-pull dynamic somewhat weakened by fewer than the usual variations in volume. The second movement, too, was considerably slower than the edginess in the score might have liked, albeit the solo violin, tuned up a tone to play a strident ‘dance of death’  – never all too easy on the ears of itself –  was executed emphatically by concertmaster Ada Pesch, who made it duly scary.

The third movement, the Adagio, unquestionably contains the work’s sweetest passages. Here, the strings not only recovered their momentum, but they imparted dreamlike harmonies. Conductor Luisi moulded the sound with the fingers of his left hand as if modelling clay, and Bernhard Heinrichs’s solo oboe was particularly stunning.

From the start of that third movement, soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller had sat on the stage like an oracle, staring out at the audience. In a black chiffon gown studded with sparkles, the soprano seemed draped in the beauties of a night sky, and she rose to her song in the final movement with a voice that was stellar. Written a good 12 years prior to the rest of the symphony, the song is a child's evocation of Heaven, complete with culinary treats from the generous celestial “cellar”. The stuffs mentioned are easy to like: the many joys of gardens, dancing, and a star-studded cast of famous saints. After all, who isn’t drawn to a location where “Wine costs not a penny and angels bake the bread”?

But the golden timbre of Müller’s voice, and the pointed eye contact she made with many members of the audience, made for a highly compelling performance. Even better, the concert audience at the Zurich opera house was a younger one than usual, making the evening’s programme a metaphor for life in the “here and now,” much like “In tempus praesens” had presented before the interval. Here again, Müller’s expression persuaded us in the audience to relish what is given us in the present, the singular moment that comes in this form only once, and can never be exactly repeated.