A programme of Leoš Janáček and Antonín Dvořák was fitting repertoire for the Czech Philharmonic’s concert on its four-city Swiss tour. Foremost, it featured two of their homeland’s best loved composers, but it was also welcome because “big music” does very nicely in Zurich’s temporary Tonhalle venue. The concert hall at the so-called Tonhalle Maag – the city’s first address for classical music while its historic 1895 concert venue undergoes renovation – is constructed all in light spruce wood, and the orchestra’s brilliant dynamic resonated handsomely there. The clean lines and uninterrupted surfaces of the interior also gave every seat the privilege of a superb, sharp acoustic.

Truls Mørk © Johs Boe
Truls Mørk
© Johs Boe

The Czech Philharmonic’s fine conductor Tomáš Netopil cuts an elegant figure on the podium, and the players in the orchestra were clearly comfortable with his energetic style. Opening the programme was Janáček’s Jealousy, the intensely passionate short overture he wrote for his opera Jenůfa. The score ebbed and flowed nicely around the dramatic and competing rhythms. Emerging from the thick density of a string section including no fewer than eight double basses, the flute’s solo line was as startling as it was masterful.

Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk squinted under the spotlights as he came on stage to play Dvořák‘s Cello Concerto in B minor, later wiping his brow and fret hand numerous times around the devilish demands of his score. Nonetheless, his performance of this great concerto, which premiered in New York in 1894 and has since become one of the canonical pieces of the cello repertoire, was the true highlight of the evening. At the start of the Allegro, Mørk’s delicate line was almost a meditation, and the very slight pauses he injected before several of his attacks imparted the sense of searching for an answer, but also boosted the tenor of profound emotion. Later, he showed complete command of the octaves and numerous double stops of the coda, even if the volume of the orchestra overshadowed him on a couple of occasions.

Dvořák composed the concerto’s second movement, a lengthier Adagio, as a tribute to the beloved sister-in-law, Josephine, whom he’d learned had fallen fatally ill. Mørk alternated the melancholy of more lyrical passages with a passionate, almost growling lower register, off-setting harmonies with the orchestra’s two superb flutes. And the Finale afterwards burst with straightforward energy, one that Mørk seemed to want to push even harder from the very start. I marvelled particularly, though, at how – even against that bombastic backdrop – he induced such varied soundscapes. He moved seamlessly from front-row brash, to sublimely emotive, to what I found extraordinary at the end of the piece when his muscular line emerged from what sounded like a deep watery pool into a tonal epiphany.

After the interval, Dvořák’s spirited Symphony no. 8 in G Major was cheerier business, and with good reason. It was composed in 1899 on the occasion of the composer’s election to the Bohemian Academy of Science, Literature and Arts. The work smacks of great optimism, and alludes repeatedly to the Bohemian folk tunes that Dvořák so loved. Here in Zurich, the full ensemble of the Philharmonic’s musicians – again with the eight double bass, a conductor who himself seemed to dance on the podium, and a fair share of trumpet fanfare – gave us a massive injection of that good feeling. And being jolly as a summer picnic, the festive mood was only topped by the encore: Johannes Brahms’ much loved Hungarian Dance no. 5.                                                 

***11