The merry and symphonic-sized Gioacchino Rossini overture to his two-act opera Semiramide begins with a starry, hushed, opening, introduces a riveting sequence for four horns, and features a number of pizzicato melodies for the strings in its final Allegro, making this one of Rossini's finest contributions to the overture genre. By performing it here in Zurich, and drawing on the seasoned talents of the La Fenice Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor John Neschling paid tribute to distinctive the Italian sound that likely also charmed audiences in the newly built Tonhalle building back in the 1890s.

Vesselina Kasarova © Suzanne Schwiertz
Vesselina Kasarova
© Suzanne Schwiertz
After Rossini, celebrated mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova sang Wagner. Kasarova launched her career in the Zurich opera house in 1989, and sang in its company for a good two years before going on to an international career. What’s more, Richard Wagner’s “Five Poems for a Female Voice” − commonly known as the Wesendonck Lieder − were composed only some ten minutes away from the Tonhalle itself. From 1857-1858, Wagner lived in Zurich as the guest of wealthy silk merchant, Otto Wesendonck, and it was his wife, Mathilde, who penned these five poems which Wagner set. As such, they have a local allure that supersedes the debate as to whether songs with such disparate themes build a viable “cycle”, or whether the phlegmatic and egocentric Wagner and Mathilde were, in fact, lovers.

Kasarova is an advocate of highly structured and in-depth voice training like the one she enjoyed, and has cautioned younger singers who − for lack of technique − stretch their limits too far, and then pay a price by losing their vocal ability too early. While Kasarova has avoided that mishap, her voice seemed ill-matched to the nuances of the Wesendonck Lieder. True, she gave the first, Der Engel, a convincing if surreal overlay, but I tried in vain to follow the German lyrics in my programme; her heavy delivery hardly made up for shortcomings in diction.

From the start, she set a stiff posture, extending her arms as if grasping an enormous ball, guiding it this way and that for sustained expression, and curling her fingers inwards as if she were a slow-moving, exotic sea-creature. It seemed a confining affectation, and it profiled her stage presence markedly. Her rendition of Im Treibhaus was handicapped by a few notes falling just short of their marks, and – while no fault of her own − contained several instances of confused timing between her and the orchestra.

Schmerzen was the most compelling of the songs, if not the most Wagnerian. Kasarova’s lower range was as resonant as the lyrics were filled with pathos: “Why should I then lament? Why, my heart, are you so heavy”? Overall, I would have liked the subtleties of the more precious songs in the sequence to have had both a lighter hand and more variety in delivery.

Following the interval, Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances – the composer’s final major orchestral work – made for the concert’s finest hour. The work’s thematic development, contrasting moods, and push-pull of various emotions deserve mention, but I was also keen on the ways the various solo and instrumental groups alternated their emergence to the fore. The alto saxophone and percussion were among those featured to advantage.

Clearly well-rehearsed, the musician’s attacks here were consistently clean, the conductor moved freely, and the hall responded with enthusiasm to the robust tempi and colourful tonalities. Given the frequent repetitions and sweeping phrases, the first movement shared footing with the Hollywood film score genre. I was not surprised to learn from Neschling’s biography that he himself had composed film scores, the 1985 hit, Kiss of the Spider Woman, among them.

In Rachmaninov’s second movement, the fine cor anglais gave an inspired performance, and the two flutes and piccolo engaged in enlightened conversation. The easy pacing of the third movement’s beginnings called up a long-distance skater on a long, icy course, while the drama of the French horns in the finale was boosted by the musicians tilting their brasses at high angles as if in celebration. Here was the quintessential Rachmaninov: “dances” predictably rhythmical, and bursting into audio explosions around a final triumphal chord.