Birmingham, Tuesday 12th April 2022
Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Review: Paul Gray
The Zagreb Philharmonic under British conductor Jan Latham-Koenig are currently on a UK tour. Indeed, this fine orchestra seem to spend much of their time touring just about every corner of the globe! The problem with touring to such a great extent, with basically the same programme of music, can sometimes lead an orchestra’s players to a certain amount of tour & programme fatigue. While this was absolutely not the case in the orchestra’s mostly magnificent reading of Mahler’s joyously springlike first symphony in the second half, the first half was at times rather lackluster.
The concert opened with fellow Croatian Dora Pejačević’s Overture for Large Orchestra. Countess Maria Theodora Paulina Pejačević (1885-1923) was a Croatian composer and a member of the Pejačević noble family. How very pleasing to hear a work by a female composer who did so much to elevate the role of Croatian song into orchestral settings. Of course, this is precisely what Maher does in Symphony No.1, where there is a symbiosis of song and symphony. In this sense the Pejačević’s Overture was a great companion piece to the Mahler.
However, for all of its “large” – and rather Elgar-meets-Richard Strauss – orchestral bombast, in this performance textural clarity was generally lacking, with individual instrumental & sectional colours lost in what at times was a muddy orchestral wash, with the performers looking rather disengaged. The performance very much felt like an orchestra gradually getting into their stride – “warming-up”, if you will.
Some of this this lack of textural, and indeed structural, clarity persisted into the first movement of Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Outstanding soloist, Tamsin Waley-Cohen and conductor Jan Latham-Koenig did not seem entirely happy with the performance of this movement. Maybe this has something to do with the nature of the first movement itself, which is a long and complex sonata-form-like piece, and had a difficult genesis for the composer. Indeed, some prefer to perform an earlier version of this movement, rather than the revision performed by Richard Strauss in 1905 with the (then) Berlin Court Orchestra.
While much of the violin writing in the first and last movements is stunningly virtuosic, the emphasis in the much-loved – and structurally very straight-forward – second movement, is on the beauty of melodic line. Tamsin Waley-Cohen performed this with rapturous elegance, control and integrity. The orchestra responded in kind, and both this aria-like piece and the stunning final Rondo movement, were truly glorious.
And the players of the Zagreb Phil gave a wonderfully awake, alive and at times scintillating performance of Mahler’s Symphony No.1. The conducting here was terrific, with Jan Latham-Koenig giving a superlative interpretation – sometimes seeming to dance on the podium. As Mahler requested, the bank of (usually) eight horns are asked to stand towards the end of the work to powerfully reiterate the joyous chorale emerging out of the tantalizing gamut of intervals of a fourth upon which this work is constructed. Truly Magnificent Mahler.
Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra
Jan Latham-Koenig, conductor
Tamsin Waley-Cohen, violin