Zinman shows off Tonhalle to U.S. Review: The retiring Baltimore Symphony conductor introduces his Swiss orchestra to Washington and New York audiences to pleasing effect.

January 26, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

On their first tour of the United States together, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich and its music director, David Zinman, gave terrific account of themselves in concerts Friday and Saturday nights in New York's Carnegie Hall and Washington's Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

If the New York performance, which featured the same program as Washington's, was slightly better, that is probably because Carnegie's acoustics are warmer and because the Swiss musicians must have been tired by a five-hour bus trip that left them little more than an hour before curtain time.

The longest work on the program was Dvorak's Symphony No. 8, which has long been a Zinman specialty with the Baltimore Symphony. The conductor's reading with the Zurich orchestra resembled the conductor's Baltimore performances in its well-shaped contours, exuberance and sensitivity.

But the differences spoke to the different strengths of the two ensembles. The Baltimore orchestra has some principal wind players who are clearly more brilliant than their Zurich counterparts -- particularly flute and clarinet -- and Baltimore's trombone section, which is one of the best anywhere, is also superior.

But the Zurich strings have a warmer, more even sound. They have an admirable set of young, talented players in the front desks in the violins, violas, cellos and basses -- not any better than the best to be found in those sections here, but more uniform in their excellence.

This resulted in a performance that was even more affectionate and relaxed than those Zinman has given in Baltimore. The upper strings were always focused and sweet, and the violas, cellos and basses were expansive and resonant.

The Tonhalle is filled with talented youngsters still in their 20s and early 30s. One suspects that in less than 10 years, this orchestra will be making some of the better-known ensembles in Europe run for cover.

Zinman and the orchestra accompanied pianist Yefim Bronfman in Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3. Bronfman has been giving distinguished performances for so long that it is hard to believe that he is not yet 40. His performance, which was sensuous as well as brilliant, gave evidence that he has developed into one of our greatest pianists.

In most readings of this piece, one rarely hears half the notes. Bronfman commands the kind of sound -- huge, but unfailingly beautiful -- that made it possible to hear them all. The lightness of his playing was as impressive as its power and brilliance. And from the beginning moments, with Zinman and the orchestra's warmly romantic account of the ethereal opening, Bronfman received an accompaniment that allowed him to play freely and confidently.

The performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" was -- except at its climax -- perhaps more polished than passionate. But there was never any doubt that one was in the presence of a superb conductor and orchestra.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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