Christian Tetzlaff and Michael Tilson Thomas Conquer the Ligeti Violin Concerto

United StatesUnited States Liszt, Ligeti, Tchaikovsky: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 6.1.2012 (HS)

Liszt: Prometheus, Symphonic Poem No. 5
Ligeti: Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1, Winter Daydreams

The magic of Ligeti’s enormously intricate and knotty Violin Concerto, even at its most complex and strange, is that it proceeds with a logic that even listeners who bristle at powerful dissonances can follow. It requires stunning virtuosity, which soloist Christian Tetzlaff and 18 members of San Francisco Symphony delivered in phantasmagorical musical colors, and made for a thrilling highlight of this week’s subscription concerts at Davies Hall.
Tetzlaff, a German violinist who seems equally at home in Bach, Brahms and the thorniest 20th-century music, has made something of a specialty of the Ligeti concerto. The formidable work, which debuted in 1990 as a three-movement piece and was revised extensively to five movements in 1992, makes use of variously tuned instruments and, in one especially beguiling section, a chorus of ocarinas, to create a sound world like no other.

Unique resonances make use of what Ligeti called “micro-intervals,” which play on the difference between the tempered scale Western music has used since Bach’s time and natural overtones more common in Eastern music. Born and raised in Hungary, Ligeti would have been familiar with both approaches to relative pitch. This concerto calls for one violin and one viola to tune to a specific harmonic produced on the string bass, which puts them just a shade flat compared with the other instruments in the 18-piece ensemble, and in one of the more arresting moments asks the two French horn players to play only their natural overtones and not use valves to match pitches with the other wind instruments.

Ligeti then uses these effects for maximum color. He deploys them extensively in the first movement, a rush of virtuosic playing that reaches for the extremes of range, speed and dynamics, and then shifts to a mood of supple, limpid, diatonic melody in the second movement. The contrast between the tuning systems heightens the mysterious cast of the first movement and emphasizes the release into more familiar territory in the second.

It was clear from this moment – the shift from dense, jittery music to a mood of utter calm – that Tetzlaff and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas shared the same approach. In their hands the first movement careered from one explosive episode to the next, and then, like a dark cloud lifting, created a glow of sensuous sound. As soon as the quartet of ocarinas took up the nostalgic tune (executed by the woodwind players), the solo violin interrupted with harsh quadruple-stop interjections (doubled deftly by principal percussionist Jack Van Geem, first on glockenspiel, then vibraphone).

The entire piece brims with similar orchestral detail. In the third movement, built on a series of cascading figures, the most arresting moment came when timpanist David Herbert executed the rapidly twisting tune over two timpani, retuning split-second by split-second. The sense of sustaining, hovering stasis in the fourth movement gave way to powerfully emotional utterances in the finale, which builds like the opening movement from near-inaudibility to a crashing climax.

Tetzlaff capped off the astonishing performance with a phenomenal cadenza of his own, rather than using the one crafted by Ligeti and the original violinist, Saschko Gawriloff, using material from the discarded first movement. Beginning with an exploration of the micro-intervals, Tetzlaff’s cadenza built to a surprisingly contained apex, using some of the timbre of the ocarinas. The terse orchestral response, centering on a few strokes of the wood block, ended matters perfectly. Audience response was ecstatic.

The program opened with similarly dramatic if much less ambitious ten-minute work by Franz Liszt – like Ligeti, a Hungarian-born composer who did most of his best work in Germany. Prometheus finds Liszt searching for ways to amp up the storytelling aspects of his early tone poems, from which some think Tchaikovsky found his orchestral sound, which explains the presence of the Russian composer’s early Symphony No. 1, Winter Daydreams, on the second half of the program. Both works received perfectly fine performances – better in the symphony, which Tilson Thomas has championed despite its reputation as second-rate Tchaikovsky. It certainly whiled away 45 minutes effortlessly.

Harvey Steiman