Nothing quite made sense in this programme, but the confusion was impressive nonetheless. The opening, the UK première of Anders Hillborg's 'Cold Heat', was a prime example of post-minimalism: an eclectic assortment of styles, juxtaposed with consideration, but without much sense of unity for the work itself. The commission had come from David Zinman for a piece 'with NO slow music whatsoever', and Hillborg complied – on the whole. Yet when the slow music did appear, it did so without consideration for balance, so that Thomas Grossenbacher's sumptuous cello solo at the end was more blessed relief, rather than expected, or even comprehensible, resolution.

© BBC / Chris Christodoulou
© BBC / Chris Christodoulou

With more apparent purpose in both the music and its performance was Maria João Pires in Mozart's last piano concerto. Completed in 1791, just months before the composer's death, this final utterance in the genre is often taken as an expression of resignation, yet there is still much life and lightness to be found.

Pires' sound is special for its seemingly contradictory qualities: the articulation is often very forward, creating an immediacy to the tone that suggests detachment, and yet her sound coheres so compellingly that direction and conclusion are both assured and demanded. However, this was not matched in the orchestra, which suffered from overly weighty strings that tired the line, and confused her ideas. All was forgotten though in the finale's cadenza, where Mozart's own hand – and Pires' immense musical understanding – transcended the basics of story-telling, elevating this music to the highest plane.

The ultimate story of this programme, however, was surely Beethoven's 'Eroica'. Written in 1803, against the depressive backdrop of his rapidly deteriorating hearing, the work is the introduction of the symphonic ideal – an aesthetic as much as a frame. And what a frame Beethoven chose, particularly in the first movement, which is essentially the protracted germination of the richest of musical seeds.

Zinman did much to engender this idea of a grand narrative: just as in a great novel, it is the attention to detail – and its subsequent reintegration into the plot – that distinguishes its brilliance. To this end, Zinman threw light onto many of the darker corners or underlying layers of the work, making wonderful use of the opportunity to highlight other points on the exposition repeat. Indeed, Zinman set out his wares in an unequivocal matter, so that one wanted to understand how each would play its part later on in the work.

Unfortunately, this emphatic detailing continued and grew increasingly mannered, instead of satisfyingly revealing. The supposedly historically informed elements were limited to bizarrely measured trills (so that cadences sounded awkward and never free) and an instruction – for some reason only taken up by the principal oboe – to embellish already ornate lines. Similarly, in the first variation proper of the finale, Zinman suddenly reduced the string forces to a string quartet, a change in balance that is antithetical to the additive construction of the theme. It simply sounded like convoluted ideas that never added up.

Yet the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich makes such a wonderful sound that this intrusive 'reimagining' of the work almost didn't matter. And Zinman should be applauded for challenging how this work can be read, even if this time, it wasn't successful.

***11