Given the star quality of the soloist and the fine reputation the Zurich Chamber Orchestra enjoys in its home city, it was a surprise to see the Tonhalle seating less than its capacity for the programme of chamber works by Mozart, Schumann and Tchaikovsky. Fine weather may have been drawing people outside, but that didn’t stop Pierre Tissonnier, the violist who introduced the concert, from encouraging us to be sure to “bring a couple of friends” next time.

First up was Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, a late work that dates from 1788, just three years before Mozart’s untimely death. Originally scripted for two pianos, the work has something of a contrapuntal style that was intended as an homage to Johann Sebastian Bach. Some musicologists point to it as evidence of Mozart’s connection to the Masonic lodge “Zur Wohltätigkeit” (To Charity). It was there that he − perhaps the most accomplished of the musical “Brothers” − aspired to balancing the strong Catholic components of his upbringing with principles of the Enlightenment.

Truls Mørk © Morten Krogvold | Virgin Classics
Truls Mørk
© Morten Krogvold | Virgin Classics

That said, the chamber group in Zurich faced a challenge of balance themselves. There was little that was particularly “enlightened” in this eight-minute rendition by the 20 players. The Adagio began with slow and dignified − sometimes strangely guttural − impulses. It seemed to have a little trouble getting off the ground and was muddy on at least two occasions. Further, in the Fugue, a very pronounced downbeat set a militaristic tone, sounding something like what the Germans’ refer to as a “Pflichtübung”, a compulsory exercise. For my taste, it sounded just a bit too burdened to be enlightened.

But then came a striking turn around. In Schumann’s wonderful Cello Concerto in A minor, arranged for cello and string orchestra, the soloist and the players truly met minds. Refreshingly, cellist Truls Mørk came on stage without the surefire confidence of some great soloists, his stage presence like that of a gentle giant. Clearly comfortable with the players with whom he has worked successfully before, Mørk set his star on the firmament from the start, for with his rare Domenico Montagnana cello − known colloquially as the “Esquire” (Venice, 1723) − he was able to offer a voice like no other.

Mørk has said that he sees the cello basically as a “singing instrument”; with its same register and melodic qualities, it closely mimics the human voice. My own seat in the concert hall was some 15 metres from the soloist, but I was aware that he often took a breath before starting each new phrase, just as a singer would do. And while he started out in the Concerto at a tempo that was slower than what is customary, Mørk demonstrated absolutely flawless fingering, and the ability to pose − and then pose again − musical questions in a way that sounded infinitely “human”. He truly made a “body” of his instrument, whose dignity and pathos he solidly affirmed, and whose variations – in both volume and vibrato – gave a solidly three dimensional character to the Schumann work.

Just outside the Tonhalle the Föhn, a special meteorological condition unique to alpine countries, had given us in Zurich a view of the Swiss Alps whose majesty seemed close enough to touch. In that light (literally), the name Domenico Montagnana that conjures up both the Latin Domenicus (“of the Father”) and the French montagne (“mountain”) did not go unnoticed, and seemed to place both Mørk’s instrument and achievement in just the right setting. Schumann’s deep pathos, tragedy and light-hearted dance-like passages were in the very best of hands. The Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite no. 2 that he played as an encore − while paced as slowly as I’ve ever heard it played – resonated like a prayer and kept us all but breathless. 

After the interval was Tchaikovsky’s glorious Serenade for String Orchestra in C major. The orchestra’s beginning was a sovereign one, and that self-assured presence continued into the work with great gusto, an attribute that distinguishes this work from the composer’s often darker tenors. In the first movement, Pezzo in the form of a Sonatina, Concertmaster Willi Zimmermann’s direction included a kind of dancing: swinging his upper body side to side to keep the tempo, while the cellist Nicola Mosca looked up at the ceiling of the hall like a man utterly transported. It was clear that the orchestra players were having a wonderful time with the music; each one not only exuded a sense of confidence and poise, but also collectively offered a texture that was as smooth as silk to listen to.

In the second movement, the famous and intensely lyrical Waltz, the perfect alignment of instruments transported listeners onto a kind of audio skating rink where one could glide easily over the surface of the harmonies. The Elegy that followed began quietly and then swelled, a strong viola section carrying the familiar melody associated with something quintessentially Russian. Yet while imparting an elegance befitting the tastes of a St Petersburg aristocracy, the work was not without the emotive power that readily pulled the heartstrings of Everyman. The concertmaster often looked over his shoulder to smile at his fellow players, confirming that they were all part of this great romance. And in the Finale, the orchestra gave an entirely new meaning to the adage “pulling all the strings out”. The ZKO’s playing was as vibrant as it was steeped in the thick textures of the Romantic. In short, as an amicable cross between a country fair and a 19th century sentimental journey, it was nothing short of a heyday.

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