Paavo Järvi officially takes up his position as Chief Conductor of the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich in the 2019/20 season. In the interim, though, he will periodically guest-conduct at the Tonhalle Maag, the venue that has been refitted for use by the orchestra until its historic hall (1885) on the Lake of Zurich shore has been renovated. What’s more, the Estonian conductor will be at the helm on the orchestra’s Far Eastern autumn tour. 

Paavo Järvi © Kaupo Kikkas
Paavo Järvi
© Kaupo Kikkas

The evening at the Maag began with Franz Liszt’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in E flat major, a work which was crafted over a 26-year period and premiered in 1855 in Weimar with the composer as soloist and Hector Berlioz conducting. Here in Zurich, the choice of Chinese pianist Zee Zee (Zhang Zuo) couldn’t have been better. The Los Angeles Times has cited her as “a powerful, passionate and compelling representative of pure artistry”. Even in the very first bars of the concerto’s first movement, the piano part spans four octaves, but she ably delivered precision at speed, her silky black hair jagging behind her as she snapped back to an upright position. A duet with a superb principal clarinet moderated the turbulence, but set the stage for Zee Zee to evoke another full spectrum of sounds, ultimately as varied as from dynamite to fairy dust. 

In the concerto’s second movement, she again alternated a showy explosive with a tender playfulness, the flute, oboe and clarinet offering fine counterpoint. The third movement harbours passages that many pianists consider the most difficult ever written for their instrument. Although Zee Zee slightly pushed ahead of the orchestra a few times, her handling of the challenging tempi changes was commendable. Järvi’s clear eye-contact with her signalled his support, which made her reaction to the thunderous applause at the end of the concerto somewhat perplexing. As modest as she was, the pianist first greeted the audience with a face that read, “What? You really liked me?” It was both humble and infectious. What’s more, in her Debussy encore, she evoked prisms of light as if making sheer magic underwater.

After the interval, Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony demanded the full contingent of Tonhalle players. Herbert von Karajan once said that “a great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience,” in no small part because the work charts the development of the love Mahler had for Alma Schindler, who was to become his wife. 

Järvi took the first movement more slowly than usual. It’s a funeral march, granted, but this one ran right close to a flow of molasses. Nevertheless, the fine trumpet solo and percussion section’s strong showing were compelling embellishments. What’s more, in the absence of the Steinway after the Liszt, we had a much better view of Järvi at work. From the start, he showed himself solidly core-centric, not inclined to great drama, but to a strong physicality that translated into pointed and muscular direction instead. 

In the cello solo in the second movement and the vigorous explorations of the brass and woodwinds’ “great vehemence”, the orchestra also excelled. At times, one could read the score’s indications for vibrato in the musicians’ bodies alone. In the monumental third movement, the superb horn soloist was assigned a special place to command more attention, giving him an almost cinematographic presence. And here, too, the conductor used his baton evocatively, “digging” with it to prompt the various instrument groups and vibrating his limbs to expand the resonance of select passages.  

The famous Adagietto wove the richest possible orchestral tapestry, and highlighted both a celestial harp and the slightly restrained pacing that fills the listener with the thrill of anticipation. That contrasted with the jolly start of the finale, which went on to parade a fine bassoon. Järvi’s repeated sweep of his palm over his pate showed the Mahler as a truly vigorous athletic workout for any conductor. But the Estonian’s command of the huge configuration was superb, and his rapport with the group seemed as amenable as it was supportive. Expectations are always great on the occasion of a conductor’s new posting, as well they should be. The Zurich public and the Tonhalle’s audience look forward to the Järvi era.