Review: Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich with David Zinman

First published in the Guardian on 28 August, 2013

Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/Zinman
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

It was as logical and polished a performance as you could ask for – but then there’s more to A German Requiem, Brahms’s radical paean to humanity, than logic and polish. The Zurich Tonhalle are a glossy ensemble, no question, and in the second of two Edinburgh International Festival concerts they sounded light on their feet and impressively disciplined. David Zinman, the 77-year-old American who’s been their artistic director since 1995 and who steps down at the end of next season, conducted with brisk, tidy gestures that the orchestra responded to with cool prowess. The Edinburgh Festival Chorus sang with warmth, clout and clear consonants. Altogether they sounded a well-oiled machine and Zinman paced them at a fair clip; there was no danger of this Requiem becoming dirge-like or indulgent. But it was only really the two excellent soloists – soprano Rachel Harnisch and baritone Florian Boesch – who infused their lines with much palpable emotional wrangling.

Which isn’t to suggest that there weren’t plenty of stirring moments along the way. Brahms begins his Requiem with a low pulsating pedal note that the Tonhalle’s basses proudly resonated around the hall. The first chorus entry was a gorgeous serene warble, and Zinman built up real tension during the second movement’s stoic march: here his pacing made for a tingling apotheosis and a natural lapse into the ensuing lilt. But it was left to the soloists to add emotive urgency. Boesch’s third movement, in which Brahms denounces the futility of gathering material wealth before death, was volatile and intense, and a pregnant Harnisch sang tenderly of the comfort of a mother’s love. A shame that Zinman rushed her; some beautiful colours simply didn’t have time to emerge. For all the commendable efficiency of this performance, I was left feeling emotionally short-changed.