Perhaps “dense” best describes the repertoire of this concert, whose thick fabric of thousands of notes and mood changes were anything but light fare. Ours was the premier performance in Switzerland of Esa-Pekka Salonon’s Nyx. As personification of Night and the daughter of Chaos drawn from ancient mythology, Nyx evokes the mystery and drama which any moment of darkness implies, but never discounts the invasion of light. Starting from a single horn, all the instruments swelled as if to call up spirits from the deep, but soon made room for its first illumination: a highly expressive solo clarinet, whose intimate passage stood like a beacon before the ensuring tonal furies of close to 100 players.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

The Tonhalle Orchestra’s first Creative Chair 2014/2015, Salonen has long since shown himself a master of flickering changes in texture, shifts between the brooding and ebullient, and variable coloration. But with its unexpected intervals and abrupt “mood swings” – to borrow a term from everyday life – Nyx celebrated the vast range of voices: shaded to electrified, bleak to bright, solo to ‘full throttle’. Salonen has said he wanted to write a complex counterpoint in the work “without losing clarity of the different layers and line, something that Strauss and Mahler so perfectly mastered”. Those associations are evident, but the downbeats of Salonen’s work confronted us like exclamation marks, or arrows hitting their marks over the great arc of sound, while adjacent sequences felt like a slow walk through molasses. And the Tonhalle players lay out a musical construct that spoke “no simple truths, nothing black and white, but instead, an endless variety of half-shadows”.

Next, and no stranger to our hall, German violinist Christian Tetzlaff was the featured soloist in Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto no. 1. Tetzlaff’s expressive body language and great command of fingering nicely suited this sumptuous music, which premiered in Warsaw in 1922. Seeming to fully reject the tradition of the 19th century and any form of predictability, the concerto bore as much musical tension as it unleashed novel delights. If May Night, a poem by the Polish poet Tadeusz Miciński was its inspiration, the leitmotif could have been “And now we stand by the lake in crimson blossom / in flowing tears of joy, with rapture and fear, / burning in amorous conflagration”.

Tetzlaff’s interpretation uncovered the same fairy-tale element, his violin continually rising above the full orchestra to imitate sounds of nature. These are sounds we are unable (yet) to fully understand, but with which we engage in on-going dialogue – just as the violin did with the orchestra. Szymanowski once called this work his “greatest triumph” musically, and Tetzlaff showed the concerto in the same light. I was relieved that he chose not to give an encore afterwards; it might have seemed a poor cousin on the heels of such a masterpiece.

Richard Strauss’s monumental tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life) came after the interval. After its 1889 premier in Frankfurt, the work bore the brunt of acidic invectives: Musical Courier’s “The man who wrote this outrageously hideous noise, no longer deserving of the word music, is either a lunatic, or he is rapidly approaching idiocy”, was but one of many such criticisms. Thematically, the work may have been a transposition of Strauss’s own Herculean ego; that he suffered the “battlefield” of doubt and singeing opposition, and confirmed the winding violin solo in in the “The Hero’s Companion” as a portrait of his wife, such an interpretation is plausible.

More importantly, while Ein Heldenleben includes whole passages whose velvety textures and Romantic lyricism recall fin de siècle Vienna, its more constricted, pulsing passages lay ground for the Modern. What appealed to me in the Zurich performance – under the muscular and targeted direction of conductor Manfred Honeck – was to hear how the piece gave numerous wind soloists the chance to truly shine. First concertmaster Klaidi Sahatci’s superb and melodic “Pauline” solo deserves particular mention, but it was the Tonhalle musicians collectively who made a massive and fully calibrated whole.

It felt like there were much bigger forces at work here, not simply allusions to each one of us – like the musicians – pulling on a single, sometimes fragile line, while the world around us goes about its boisterous business. Not simply because the high volumes electrified the hall, and the quiet moments entirely hushed it. No, the Strauss was a confrontation with something much larger and powerful, something whose forces decidedly humbled all of those listening. The work is really that big, and this orchestra imparted that sensation splendidly.