The Tonhalle Orchestra has improved its reputation—and by all accounts its quality—by leaps and bounds in the years that David Zinman has held the reins. His Beethoven Cycle on the super budget label Arte Nova (now RCA’s ‘market entry’ imprint) was among the first to use the scores revised by Norman Del Mar, a modern orchestra, and Beethoven’s own metronome markings. It hit the right tone, came at the right time, and at the right price—sold over a million (!) copies, and put the Tonhalle back on the international orchestral map after having dropped off for a few years.
Zinman, also keenly remembered in Rochester (“my first love”) and in Baltimore (where he excelled at building repertoire and an audience), went on to have similar success with his Schumann, and this year he finished a complete Mahler Cycle for RCA on SACDs. The latter has helped them establish a reputation as a Mahler orchestra and it was the Tonhalle Orchestra—along with Bamberg (recording an SACD Mahler Cycle for Tudor with Jonathan Nott)—that the Mahler Festival organizers thought off first to invite in place of the Berlin Philharmonic which had been too hesitant for too long to make proper plans with.
Even if the Tonhalle’s rather well-behaved and sometimes diffident Mahler cycle didn’t necessarily suggest it, the performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony was one that left no one missing another orchestra or conductor.
G.Mahler, Symphony No.6,
J.Barbirolli / Philharmonia
G.Mahler, Symphony No.6,
Zinman / TO-Zurich
Very notably (and cliché-fulfilling), the Zurich orchestra has divine cowbells! Gentle and musical and much more golden and round in tone than the tin-cup alley noise that all the other orchestra’s emit that I’ve heard in the Sixth and Seventh Symphony. One imagined the percussionists having gently taken them off their bovine owners just before going on tour, with the promise to return them in tip top shape. This was one among many touches that gave the performance, while still not heavy on interpretation, a local inflection that went well beyond instrumental color and orchestral virtuosity.
Zinman chose to go with the Andante as the first of the inner movements and turned a sinewy, professionally longing movement, followed by a lively Scherzo… so lively, in fact, that it rendered the opening of the fourth movement ineffective. But Zinman’s finale, played with lots of zest, recovered quickly. The mix of refinement and fervor (with the second violins an especially enthused bunch) made this truly an edge-of-a-comfortable-seat performance. Despite edge and bite, Zinman seemed to soar through the movement, propelled by an irresistible groove, undeterred by the (two) hammer-blows, and gorgeous oboe and violin solos along the way. The last note was plucked like the very thread of life was snipped in half. It was a morbidly pert end to one of the most satisfying performances of the Mahler Festival.