This Zurich Chamber Orchestra “Very British” concert was conducted by the sprightly Duncan Ward, himself British, and whose vitality and passion for the works performed was palpable. Having participated in the Masterclass Conductor’s Academy under David Zinman here in Zurich in 2010, this concert marked Ward’s official Tonhalle debut, making the event both a homecoming and a tribute to Great Britain’s rich musical heritage.

Duncan Ward
© Alan Kerr

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis is a 1910 work that reflects the sublime achievements of the Renaissance master. Twenty-two string players tackled the piece with gusto; even a simple solo passage by the first violin was as sonorous as it was lyrical. As the work’s fabric became progressively denser and its volume increased, the conductor seemed to carry the music in his body, smiling and stretching like an athlete on a busy playing field. Concertmaster Willi Zimmermann also gave vivid colour to his solo passages, banking on the energy of the deep breaths he took before each.

Next, Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings featured seasoned British tenor, Mark Padmore, and fine ZKO horn player Thomas Müller. Britten chose lyrics to mark the transitory and the inevitability of death, which Padmore infused with great colour. Written in 1943 for British tenor Peter Pears, the serenade revolves around six elegiac poems, five of which pointedly concern morbidity. Only the last, the Hymn, unravels a ray of light from a goddess “excellently bright”. Padmore, whom Queen Elizabeth II appointed in 2019 as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, has a resonant voice that gets under the skin; it was impossible not be moved by his performance, none the least because over and beyond his voice, his facial expressions were brilliantly animated.

Following the thread of Britain’s rich cultural heritage, a second Britten piece, Lachrymae – Reflections on a Song of Dowland, saw the orchestra’s superb principal viola, Ryszard Groblewski, offering mellow, even ghostlike, interjections of his line. The work’s more melodic, less strained, resolution was compelling: Groblewski championing its abrupt shifts from the relaxed to the frenzied.

Last came Michael Tippett’s intriguing Concerto for Double String Orchestra, which is launched with a big bang, and whose upbeat and easier rhythms make it highly likeable. It saw members of the orchestra grinning widely. Ward set a mood, undulating liberally in keeping with the score. Tippett underpins passages with jagged instrumental interludes; by contrast, the violins occasionally gave us creamy resonance from the other end of the sound spectrum. In the Adagio, the concertmaster played a lullaby-like solo, while the strings, having diverged from the theme, found their way back to intervals that even prefigured experimental music. The work’s final frenzy had the conductor shifting his body vigorously from left to right as if on a speeding bicycle; indeed, this was a very physical performance, but one deserving of every accolade.