Extensive UK tours by orchestras from the EU are, one suspects, likely to be rarities for some time to come. A combination of the lingering consequences of the pandemic and the extra layers of bureaucracy imposed by Brexit make the organisation of such undertakings much more challenging, so the current six-date tour by the Zagreb Philharmonic – its first visit since 1974 – is rather remarkable.
Jan Latham-Koenig is the conductor for all the concerts, which include music by Croatia’s most familiar composer, Dora Pejačević, alongside repertory works by Sibelius and Mahler. The tour-opener, in the rather bright, sometimes unforgiving acoustic of the Anvil, suggested that the Zagreb orchestra is a feisty, highly accomplished band, which more than compensated for its occasional lack of tonal refinement with an energy and vividness that Latham-Koenig exploited in his performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. It was very much an interpretation presented in bold, primary colours, without a great deal of subtlety but with very loud, almost brash climaxes which allowed the brass much more chance to assert itself than the orchestra’s woodwind.
That assertiveness did result in some problems of balance, and in Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, too, there were passages in which the soloist, Tamsin Waley-Cohen, had to fight just a bit too hard to make her finely chiselled lyricism heard. But the general profile of her approach – severe and brisk in the first two movements, far more unbuttoned in the finale – came across clearly, even when some of the details were obscured.
Four of Pejačević’s orchestral songs, sung by the soprano Marija Vidović, had opened the concert. Settings from 1915 of poems by Karl Kraus and Rilke are ambitious late romantic essays, with Strauss and perhaps Zemlinsky as their stylistic references, while the two Butterfly Songs, composed in 1920 just three years before Pejačević’s death at the age of 38, are charming miniatures, composed with the lightest of touches, which Vidović presented with just the right combination of tact and charm.
At the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham on 8 April, and touring until 14 April.