The LSO Welcome Christian Tetzlaff and Susanna Mälkki at Short Notice

14/03/2017

Brahms and Strauss: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), London Symphony Orchestra / Susanna Mälkki (conductor), Barbican Concert Hall, Barbican Centre, London, 12.3.2017. (AS)

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D Op. 77
Strauss Also sprach Zarathustra Op. 30

The prospect of hearing Janine Jansen play the Brahms Violin Concerto was something very much to look forward to, as was the intriguing potential of her collaboration with the mercurial Valery Gergiev, whose performance of the Strauss work cannot have been anything than of great interest.

Alas for the LSO management and for the Barbican audience, both these artists had been laid low by illness, and Christian Tetzlaff and Susanna Mälkki stepped in at short notice to take their places with an unchanged programme. That Tetzlaff has the Brahms concerto in his bones, so to speak, was clear, since he played the work confidently from memory.

In the case of the Finnish conductor, Susanna Mälkki, making her LSO debut, one can’t be quite so sure. She will have taken over at very short notice and maybe – it would have seemed imprudent to make enquiries – she had had to master both scores very quickly. In this circumstance her performances should not be considered in the same light as if this concert had been part of her regular schedule.

To her advantage is the fact that she has the clearest of baton techniques and she conveys her wishes to the orchestra with apparent total confidence and conviction. No doubt that confidence has been boosted by her recent rapid rise through the conducting ranks, for she is now Chief Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and has recently appeared with the Philadelphia, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony and Cleveland orchestras, not to mention prestigious European ensembles.

Her conducting of the Brahms concerto will have been to a large extent designed to accommodate the style and approach of her soloist. Within these imposed limits she obtained an alert and efficient response from her players.

That Christian Tetzlaff has a virtuoso technique is without question. His intonation seemed faultless, and he played with tremendous energy. But he has, to this listener’s ears, an unwontedly strenuous style, and he produces an unpleasingly abrasive sound quality: the lady in the next seat, not known to me, not unfairly described it as “scratchy”. And he is always pushing at the music; he never allows a paragraph or phrase to flower and speak for itself. Even in the slow movement there was no feeling of warmth or spirituality, and in the finale there was no sense of uplifting, boisterous “Hungarian” rhythms. It was all bustle and haste.

It was interesting to compare Mälkki’s performance of Also sprach Zarathustra with the one given by Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, heard at the Royal Festival Hall almost exactly a month ago (review). That performance was characterised by warmth of orchestral tone and expression: the conductor seemed fully in love with the music. Mälkki is a noted exponent of contemporary music, and her approach to Strauss’s score was somewhat detached and analytical, as if she was viewing its romantic style with the experience of having absorbed more recent and objective styles of composition.

She was at an immediate disadvantage in that the Barbican’s electronic organ was painfully inadequate in its contribution towards the effect of the work’s mighty opening. Thereafter her conducting, though efficient, failed to convey that peculiar sweetness that inhabits Strauss’s lyrical passages, or the mountainous majesty of the work’s climaxes. The eerie, troubled quality of the work’s quiet ending sounded merely soft and anti-climactic.

But again one has to bear in mind that this was a situation where the conductor probably had little or no time to absorb the work’s deeper aspects: her primary task was to get the players to play the notes and to obtain a good balance of sound. That she undoubtedly did.

Alan Sanders       

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