The city of Zurich is privileged to have two extraordinarily fine orchestras, one of which is the “house” configuration of its historic opera house. For a recent Sunday concert, Philharmonia Zürich paid tribute to three musical greats: Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev.  Stravinsky's Concerto in D for string orchestra is a cerebral, often atonal work that was crafted in Hollywood during the composer’s U.S. years, and a work commissioned in 1946 by the Swiss patron/conductor Paul Sacher to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Basel Chamber Orchestra. Since my own mother-in-law played cello in that same configuration, I took a keen personal interest in the piece and was overwhelmed by its vivacity and integrity.

Baiba Skride © Marco Borggreve
Baiba Skride
© Marco Borggreve
In the first movement Vivace the strings pulsed through their first measures, the violas particularly strong in their lead. But it was in the “skating” rhythm of the second movement that I first noticed the conductor’s unusually long and exceedingly elegant fingers. Using them as a dancer would his limbs, they gave a truly lyrical note to Gustavo Gimeno’s pointed direction. The third movement Arioso: Andantino surprised listeners first with its strains of the Wiener Waltz, although it moved back quickly towards the electrical charges we had heard in the first movement. In the Rondo: Allegro finale, concertmaster Hanna Weinmeister’s solo violin opened up a narrative of pain and struggle (almost like a Schindler’s List precursor), the double bass finishing with its hefty down-home argument.

Next in the programme, Baiba Skride tackled Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. Written in 1878, the work is still considered one of the most technically difficult in the whole violin repertoire. That did little to stump Skride, who was able to make her way seamlessly through even the most gruelling challenges to her fingering. In the first movement Allegro moderato, she had almost a full three minutes to ply her trade in a sequence of musical calls and answers in the highest register. Overall, her playing was as clean as a whistle, even if a little too ferociously paced in two brief instances for the orchestra to keep up with her.

In the second movement Canzonetta, Skride gave great melancholic expression to her middle range and then highlighted the delightful flute solo (Maurice Heugen) with raised eyebrows and one of her many easy-going smiles. The compelling clarinet (Robert Pickup) and horns that followed broke into something like a slow-paced klezmer in the Allegro vivacissimo finale, while the violin broke into a sequence light and vivacious enough to see the piece run through a whole spectrum of sound: from the ebullient and resplendent to the simple and mundane.  The compelling solo oboe (Phillip Mahrenholz) and solo bassoon (Anne Gerstenberger) each gave fine grist to the mix.

The 31 year-old Skride plays the Stradivarius "Ex Baron Feilitzsch" (1734), which is on loan to her from Gidon Kremer. She had to adjust her neckline often to accommodate her instrument, and couldn’t quite seem to leave her hair alone, but the nervousness vanished as soon as she was underway. Her playing was, in fact, so sonorous that it felt at times like the violin was playing her.

After the break, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was a flourish of sickles and hammers. I couldn’t help but compare it to the romance of Romeo and Juliet, which is the far more sublime piece. The Fifth was expertly played, but the various fragments repeated themselves too often, without offering the perks of likeable melodies. The symphony lurched from the Romantic to the bombastic, and any volume control took a back seat to painting a bright and picture of the monumental and militaristic. 

The second movement began with a superb clarinet solo against a fabric of frenetic strings; again, flute and oboe entered the conversation with a sterling offer. The third movement also gave room for the tuba (Florian Hatzelmann) to excel, but in music that would be best suited to a Hollywood movie. No question, the stellar Philharmonia players more than held their own, but not even their magic could defer the sensation that this music came across like a heartbeat that just wouldn’t give up the ghost. The Fifth came out of a ravaged Soviet Russia at the end of WWII, but its repetitive phrasing, heavy percussion, and frantic pace made the distinct impression that Prokofiev had thrown everything into it but the kitchen sink.