Fabio Luisi bid a sonorous farewell to his colleagues in the Philharmonia Zürich, the orchestra of the Zurich Opera where he has been general music director for nine years, his bittersweet swan song taking place in the Opernhaus. There was only one work on the program, but it couldn’t have been a more memorable choice: Bruckner’s Symphony no. 7 in E major. With its drama and romanticism, its scope and spiritual yearning, the work was perfect for Luisi’s emotive style and for goodbyes ranging from the sweet and tender to the monumental and cataclysmic.

Fabio Luisi
© Zurich Opera

Luisi is highly regarded as an interpreter of opera but showed in this intense performance just how well he understands and can communicate Bruckner's music. The original choice for the program had been Mahler’s Ninth, but this year’s restrictions and contingencies necessitated a work of more manageable proportions.

Manageable, however, does not mean dull or predictable, and there is nothing small scale in Bruckner’s symphonies. This engrossing performance, lasting an hour and 10 minutes, explored every dimension of musical expression that fell from the composer’s pen. Conducting without a baton, Luisi precisely molded his intentions for the music, the long fingers of his hands seeming to play the orchestra like a harp. The musicians themselves seemed on high alert, as though their usual discipline and caution simply were not good enough. Their faces shone with a concentration matched only by the excellence of their playing, captured by some of the finest orchestral videography I’ve seen this year.

Fabio Luisi conducts the Philharmonia Zürich
© Zurich Opera

Luisi is always a pleasure to watch at the podium. He stands out among his peers for the impression of poise and elegance he conveys, not just in stance or deportment, but in his respect for the music and its players. This symphony, which I confess is my favorite in the Bruckner corpus, provides a rare treat for the brass lover, as the composer unleashes a quartet of French horns at the opening and later four Wagner tubas, as well as trumpets and trombones. Luisi hit just the right spot by allowing them the freedom to project their bright clear voices over the orchestra, yet they never became too heraldic or bombastic.

Philharmonia Zürich
© Zurich Opera

The majestic first movement is that rarity, a long segment that is gone in a trice, thanks to Luisi’s always intriguing pace. The repetitive never became humdrum. His expression was warm but not overly dramatic, though there were several places where he stretched his arms to the heavens, his face glowing with radiant sincerity, only to sink into subdued silence. The overall sound from beginning to end, with its swells and declivities, bordered on the voluptuous.

After a rollicking Scherzo, the work ended with a brilliant finale, some fugue-like touches, and shimmering colors in the high strings. The conductor, flushed, damp, but exhilarated, softly smiled goodbye.


This performance was reviewed from the Opernhaus Zürich live stream