Tchaikovsky’s short fantasy for orchestra Francesca da Rimini reflects the tragic tale from the fifth canto of the Inferno in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. It is the story of a woman who marries the son of a nobleman but regrettably falls in love with that man’s more appealing brother. The lovers are ultimately killed by the woman’s jealous husband and condemned to Hell for their adultery. Given that background, Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem, which premiered in Moscow in 1877, had every reason to explore what was dark and ominous. When the two lovers are trapped in their damnation, the strings wheeze up and down the scales to recreate a violent storm, one as palpable as in a Hollywood movie. Indeed, the sense of foreboding marks the piece from the very start and is said to show a debt to works both of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

Martin Fröst
© Martin Bäcker | Sony Music Entertainment

The Tonhalle's configuration is a large one and its orchestra’s new Chief Conductor Paavo Järvi did a superb job of embracing and expounding on the work with the more than 80 musicians on stage. From his posture alone one might think him detached and inapproachable, for he stands straight as an arrow, two feet firmly on the ground. On the contrary, though, his composure and fixed centre on the podium made a hugely resonant and muscular body of the musicians. His signals are clear and his passion for the music palpable. Here in the Tchaikovsky, he made gold in the solo flute (Sabine Poyé Morel) and collective woodwinds, all of whom deserve special accolades.

Next came the open, changing harmonies of American composer Aaron Copland. His Clarinet Concerto was premiered in 1950 in New York by the great Benny Goodman, who commissioned the piece. The solo part readily switches from a whisper to a loud complaint, from an almost symphonic order into a jazz mode. Over the long years of his composing activity, Copland was aware of his contemporaries’ gradual shift into twelve-tone and serial music, but was to say that his own genre “allowed him to incorporate elements associated with the twelve-tone method and also with music tonally conceived”. In other words, he readily employed the best of both.

Here in Zurich, the long and lanky Martin Fröst played the solo clarinet, categorically mesmerising the crowd with his tonal colours – to say nothing of his ever-changing body movements. He would seem to pose a question with his instrument airborne, tell a secret to the woodwinds with his body turned away from the strings or greet one of the cellists with a light serenade. He stood as the Colossus of Rhodes at one moment, a lion on tiptoes tracking a mouse in the next. In short, the dance integral to a Fröst performance is compelling and lends a whole new dimension to any work he plays. The effervescence and virtuosity of his music are incomparable, but his lithe physical performance as much a delight to watch. Being “moved by the music” takes on a whole new connotation.

Atypical of most soloists, Fröst also joined the audience after the interval for the second half of the evening’s programme: Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. When, twelve years after its premiere in Moscow, the work was premiered in 1890 in New York, one local reviewer wrote of it: “The Fourth... proved to be one of the most thoroughly Russian, i.e. semi-barbaric, compositions ever heard in this city... If Tchaikovsky had called (it) ”A Sleigh Ride Through Siberia” no one would have found this title inappropriate”.

Today, the work is often thought to reflect the personal dilemma Tchaikovsky faced at the time, having entered into a disastrous marriage with one of his female students to temper rumours of his homosexuality. The bombastic horn and bassoon fanfare at the start is a tone that recurs in the work with a vengeance – the modus that Tchaikovsky himself called “the fatal force which presents our hopes of happiness from being realised”.

The second movement begins with a melancholy, folk-like melody by the poignant oboe, played here by soloist Simon Fuchs, whose sublime rendition could melt even the hardest heart. The Scherzo that follows includes what Tchaikovsky cited as “capricious arabesques”, its playful pizzicato strings lightening the load of the movement that came before it. The last movement starts by rejoicing: a rush of strings, brass and cymbals said to incorporate a Ukrainian folk song In the Field Stood a Birch Tree as its second subject. At this point, the conductor moderated his gestures, at first like a sole figure waiting for a partner from the side of a dance hall. But coming to the huge crescendo that ends the symphony, he moved demonstrably onto the balls of his feet and sealed the work with an ending that was as tight as a tick. In short, this was a terrific concert evening at the Tonhalle Maag, whose unexpected encore – the spirited Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin – sent most of us home humming.