After 19 years, David Zinman took his leave from the post of music director of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich yesterday with an affectionate Proms programme of Strauss, Dvořák and Beethoven. During his lengthy tenure, he has turned the Tonhalle from a solid band which “seemed to function with a civil-servant mentality” (in an interview with The New York Times) to an orchestra keen to push boundaries. Zinman and the Tonhalle continued, in many ways, the explorations Nikolaus Harnoncourt began in applying historically informed performance practices to modern instrument orchestras. Indeed, Zinman was the first conductor to record a Beethoven symphony cycle using the new Urtext editions of Jonathan Del Mar published by Bärenreiter.

David Zinman © Chris Christodoulou
David Zinman
© Chris Christodoulou

Richard Strauss’ tone poem depicting a portrait of the merry prankster Till Eulenspiegel opened the programme in witty rather than exuberant form – more an amiable ramble than the Ferrari speeds of Riccardo Chailly I witnessed last month. Woodwind ensemble sounded a little muddy towards the beginning – possibly taking time for orchestra (or these ears) to adjust to the hall’s unique acoustic. Zinman drew airy, buoyant playing from the strings in their carefree dance, while a thwacking bass drum and stern brass provided the menace. Till’s defiance in his trial – personified by the E flat clarinet – was a little tame in protestation, but he thumbed his nose at his accusers before scampering off into the night.

Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor still labours under the label of ‘neglected’. Joseph Joachim, its dedicatee, never played it in public; he suggesting numerous revisions but still complained about its ‘extremely thick orchestral accompaniment’. Virtuosi of the calibre of Heifetz, Szigeti, Kreisler and Szeryng ignored it, yet others such as Oistrakh and Milstein had it in their repertoire. A number of today’s players have championed the concerto, including Julia Fischer, who has recorded it with this very orchestra and conductor.

Julia Fischer © Chris Christodoulou
Julia Fischer
© Chris Christodoulou

It is the sunniest of concertos, full of lilting warmth and fiery Czech dance rhythms. The first movement doesn’t follow orthodox fashion. After its brusque Beethovenian opening orchestral statement, the soloist is introduced immediately; there follows a lyrical second subject, but there’s no flashy cadenza or grand flourish to end the movement. Instead, it flows – Mendelssohn-like – into the F major Adagio, all wistful, Bohemian charm. A dancing rondo finale features a 3/8 Czech furiant with a central 2/4 episode more like a traditional dumka, lending it the carefree quality of one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, the first set of which was published around the time he was working on the concerto. It's a concerto that suits Fischer well, for her cool, calm, collected approach allows the music to unfold naturally, drawing out the music’s lyricism without any flashy show of virtuosity for its own sake. Zinman and the TOZ offered featherbed support, where something a little more assertive wouldn't have gone amiss. Violin wizardry was reserved for Fischer’s magical encore – the finale from Paul Hindemith’s Sonata in G minor – which enthralled the packed audience.

For the second half of the Prom, a Beethoven symphony was programmed, but rather than go out with a blaze of glory (the Fifth), exuberance (the Seventh) or a triumphant declaration of universal brotherhood (the Ninth), Zinman chose the Pastoral – Beethoven at his most relaxed and contented. With significant nods to period instrument performance practice, Zinman set out at a brisk pace, yet his orchestra never sounded hustled or bustled – a bracing countryside walk. The brook in the second movement flowed purposefully, but Zinman didn’t neglect the opportunity to stand and stare; the silvery first flute providing a captivating nightingale impersonation towards the close. What was noticeable was how carefully the Zurich musicians listen to each other, creating chamber music from Beethoven’s woodwind exchanges.

The merry-making peasants of the third movement would had to have been particularly nimble-footed to cope with Zinman’s dashing tempi – more slick than rustic – but one could sense the players having a whale of a time, especially the second bassoon. After a brusque and bruising storm, the clarinet ranz des vaches and the gently pulsing hymn provided balm to draw Zinman’s tenure to a close. Almost. An encore as cheesy as Gruyère, Evviva i Soci, started with atmospheric cow-bells, descended into slapstick – literally in the case of one percussionist beating another – and sent the audience away with broad grins on their faces.