Under the direction of gifted concertmaster Willi Zimmermann, the first piece on the Zurich Chamber Orchestra's programme was Benjamin Britten’s effervescent Simple Symphony for string orchestra. Each of its four movements draws on two scores that Britten had composed as a teenager; taken together, they make up a refreshing compendium that shows him a master of composition and good humour, even at 20, the age at which he completed his first draft.

Alexandre Tharaud
© Marco Borggreve

The Boisterous Bourrée opening movement started off with a bang of four emphatic down bows, and went on in the same vein to rhythms that recalled a spirited English country dance, one which even saw the first cellist tapping a foot. The Playful Pizzicato second movement featured all the strings at their vigorous handiwork, plucking their instruments with marked volume variations, the cellists even vigorously strumming their instruments with both hands. By contrast, the Sentimental Sarabande, at strikingly full volume, was something like the score to a tear-jerking romance movie, the double bass pumping out a low note emphatically, even as the music wrapped the audience in its arms. The Frolicsome Finale turned the tide towards fast-paced and full-blooded energy that was equally infectious. This performance was a case for Britten’s brilliance and the ZKO’s response in kind.

French pianist Alexandre Tharaud then stepped up to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major, “Jeunehomme”. As with Britten, Mozart had also looked consistently for new creative forms of musical expression. Sitting straight as an arrow at the keys of a fine Bösendorfer, Tharaud gave a stellar performance. With almost a dancer’s hands, he mesmerised the audience from the start, not only with his command of the score, but by fully engaging with the orchestra to a degree that was, at least for me, truly unprecedented.

Already in the first movement Allegro, Tharaud often turned fully towards the players as if one might from a casual barstool to hear what the rest of the gang were on about. He clearly felt and showed himself as one of them, keenly interested in the whole configuration, and he continued to show that alliance throughout. Moreover, his interpretation was as multifaceted as it was precisely crafted. In the Andantino, he rolled out a delicate score with finesse, and in his solo parts, seemed to succumb to the magic he himself was brewing. His short dialogue with the fine oboe was also supremely beautiful.

Finally, in the spirited Rondeau, whose playful violins his own piano part sometimes imitated or parried, he showed himself a master of warp speed. Through it all, there was no sign of fatigue nor lack of interest in the players themselves, as truly engaged in their musical dialogues as he was. In short, whether referring to his Mozart interpretation, or to Tharaud as a pianist himself, this was a heavenly “Jeunehomme” that all of us will well remember.

*****