BBC Proms 59,Tonhalle-orchester Zurich, Paavo Jarvi, Augustin Hadelich 30th August 2023


You can rely on Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak to sell seats. Royal Albert Hall was as full as I’ve ever seen it and there was quite a queue for returns when I collected my programme from the press desk. And all these 5,000 or so concert goers were in for a terrific treat – not just the enjoyment of dear old favourites but hearing them played by this crack Swiss orchestra with all the immaculate precision of a Swiss clock.

Paavo Jarvi’s approach to very familiar music is to present it in a new way but without ever resorting to gimmickry. Thus Dvorak’s Symphony No 9 in E Minor, “From the New World” came packed with beautifully balanced contrasts in the opening Adagio-Allegro Molto. We heard every brass and woodwind detail but never did it overpower the strings who were unusually seated with cellos between first violins and violas. Seven double basses (upstage right) were noteworthy too for striking sectional unity, their sound impeccably blended. The adagio was played with loving tender warmth – every cadence delivered compellingly – and the yearning, soulful timbre of the cor anglais solo in this performance will stay with me for a long time. This is, of course, a Big Symphony, and I liked the way Jarvi let all the brass interjections, especially the tuba, bite though the texture in the final movement which came at a cracking pace.

Before the interval Augustin Hadelich gave us a memorable account of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and is clearly at one with Jarvi on wanting us to hear its joyful majesty afresh. I especially liked, for instance, the unusual speed of the crescendo leading up to the cadenza which Hadelich then played with such contrasting measured deliberation that you could hear, and waited for, every single harmonic which meant that you could also “hear” a very attentive audience listening too which was quite special. The trills with the flute after the cadenza were another high spot in a performance which brought masses colour and warmth along with bravura.

And Hadelich’s sparky rendering of his own arrangement of Howdy Forrester’s Appalachian Tune, a series of ever more complex variations with lots of short glissandi rather neatly took us across the Atlantic in preparation for Dvorak.

The concert had opened with Beethoven’s 1822 overture The Consecration of the House – the least familiar item on the programme. Although I don’t think this is Beethoven at his most inspired (written to commission in a hurry for the opening of a theatre when he was rather busy with the late quartets and the Missa Solemnis) it was an appropriate choice for an orchestra whose history is associated with a concert hall. Moreover, it incisively set the tone for the evening. Anyone who wasn’t initially paying attention certainly would have been the moment s/he heard the dramatic timing of the opening chords, the crispness reinforced by the hard sticks on the timps.

At the very end of the concert after the Dvorak, the orchestra played The Herd-Maid’s Dance from Hugo Alfven’s The Mountain King to ensure that the delighted audience went home with dance in their feet and tunes in their heads. I heard more than one person singing snatches of Dvorak at South Kensington Underground Station afterwards.

Susan Elkin