The Imaginative Richness of Christian Tetzlaff’s Beethoven: Exciting and Memorable

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven and Brahms: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Sally Matthews (soprano), Matthias Goerne (baritone), , London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 24.5.2015 (CS)

Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Op.61
Brahms: German Requiem Op.45


Who knew that four quiet crotchets could be so important?  In this idiosyncratic and enthralling performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, that’s just what soloist Christian Tetzlaff and conductor Daniel Harding taught us, for the unassuming gesture by the timpanist which sets the Allegro ma non troppo in motion became the beating heart of the entire work, in a performance which foregrounded contrast and agitation, but which at times erred towards dark melancholy.

Harding and the London Symphony Orchestra set the tone in the long orchestral passage which precedes the soloist’s entry.  Although the dolce woodwind melody was mellifluous, tension was injected by the timpanist’s tapping pulse, imitated by sharp staccato violins, and by extreme dynamic changes from barely a whisper to an explosive forte.  The silences which followed the agitated outbursts were laden with anticipation.  Harding brought forth inner lines, disturbing the surface calm – as when the viola’s and cello’s restless triplets beneath the violins’ smooth scalic subject increased in intensity and volume, eventually pushing aside the theme before all shrank away to reprise the timpanist’s hollow knocking.

Tetzlaff skipped up the octaves which introduce the soloist, climbing to a high G which shone with light-beam intensity but which immediately vanished, sinking to the barely audible depths of the twisting climb which culminates in the soloist’s first theme.  The gradation of tone and colour was meticulously controlled and perfectly judged, a sign of the consummate musicianship and spontaneity which was to characterise the whole performance.

The first movement is long and complex, but so impulsive and inventive was this performance that each moment was utterly transfixing.  Tetzlaff was mercurial and teasing, sometimes whispering, then attacking with surprising force, playing with the rhythm and our expectations.  Eloquent and communicative, there was not a phrase which was not considered and personal; and there was a physical litheness about his performance which tempered the intensity with freshness and freedom.  Tetzlaff may have performed this work 280 times, as the programme note revealed, but it was apparent that during this performance he was finding new things to say, and was inspired and exhilarated by his discoveries.  Harding and the LSO matched their soloist for impetuosity and concentration, following Tetzlaff’s imaginative flights with assurance and panache.

Beethoven did not write a first-movement cadenza for the first performance of the concerto – by Franz Clement in 1806 – and this has been an invitation for composers, from Saint-Saëns to Schnittke, and violinists from Joseph Joachim to Joshua Bell, to compose their own.  Teztlaff eschewed these and the most commonly heard Kreisler cadenza for his own arrangement of a version written by Beethoven himself, when the composer later arranged the concerto for piano and orchestra, in which the timpanist features alongside the solo piano.

Tetzlaff’s tone at the start of the cadenza was rather gruff, but this was fitting for the somewhat bombastic double-stopping and the violinist’s technical mastery allowed him to relish the risks.  The surprising entry of timpani and its ensuing colloquy with the violin brought anger and unrest to a movement whose sunny ambience is more conventionally touched by only the wispiest grey clouds.  But, such darkness was in keeping with the mood thus far established and the unpredictability was in itself enervating.

The Larghetto was played with a quiet confidence: the tempo was slow, the orchestral legato unwavering, while the soloist’s pianissimo was extreme and the phrasing undemonstrative.  The result was a reticence that bordered on melancholy and I would have liked the solo line to sing more warmly at times.  But the fine silk thread of sound was entrancing.  And Tetzlaff allowed his violin to dance with a lighter heart in a fast but graceful rendition of the Rondo which ensued without pause, gratefully relieving the tension.  The energy and drama never waned, though at times the elegant solo line was over-powered by rumbustious playing by the LSO.  But Tetzlaff was not afraid to retreat to the barest whisper, as in the final bars, before bursting forth with gleaming brightness.

Brahms’ monumental German Requiem followed the interval.  There was a pensive quality about the opening, as Harding drew out the gently ascending intertwining violin lines above the low throb of organ, timpani and basses – whose repeating pulse recalled the intensity of the timpani motif which had underpinned the drama of the preceding concerto.  But the depths of this intimated profundity were not fully plumbed in the ensuing movements.  For, despite Harding’s unfailing attention to detail and clear sense of the work’s dramatic arc – and some wonderful exchanges between the members of the woodwind section and driving intensity from the LSO’s double basses – the LSO Chorus were not sufficiently bold in conveying fear and loss, or comforting in assuaging man’s grief.

Chorus Master Simon Halsey had marshalled his singers with characteristic precision but the voices did not carry over the vivid LSO textures.  The opening ‘Seilig sind’ was at best restrained, more often tentative, and lacked the serenity to reassure us that ‘Blessed are they that mourn’.  While the LSO violins demonstrated impressive control of colour and tone at the start of ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras’, and the timpani and basses intoned with funereal darkness, the Chorus could not match the orchestra’s fluctuating moods as the text turns between suffering to joy.

The entry of the baritone soloist in the third movement brought welcome adrenaline and elation.  Slightly hunched, seemingly absorbed during the preceding movements, Matthias Goerne rose to his feet with an air of gravitas and intent; he immediately made eye contact with all in the Hall and used his voice – and hands – persuasively and poignantly.  Later, in ‘Denn wir haben hie’ Goerne wonderfully conveyed the mystery promised by the text, but in the double fugue which follows the soloist’s consoling avowal that ‘the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed’, the LSO Chorus did not have the vigour or brightness of tone to convey the triumphant message that ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’.

Sally Matthews, stepping in at short notice to replace the indisposed Miah Persson (who had herself been a replacement for the advertised soprano soloist, Dorothea Röschmann) sang ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ with characteristic radiance and firm projection, but I found her strong soprano a little unbending after Goerne’s intimate and flexible utterances, and the text was sacrificed to vocal glint and power.

This concert was part of the LSO’s International Violin Festival, which has already seen Leonidas Kavakos, Gil Shaham, Nicola Benedetti, Isabelle Faust and other illustrious stars of the violin world grace the Barbican stage, and which promises more delights in the coming weeks when Janine Jansen, James Ehnes, Alina Ibragimova and Joshua Bell join the orchestra.  It was fitting then that it was Christian Tetzlaff’s ability to make an old war house speak with new meanings and messages that made the concert so exciting and memorable.   This reading might not be the one you would choose for a CD-collection staple, but the imaginative richness of Tetzlaff’s performance was spine-tingling – and in its provocative inventiveness, truly Beethovenian.

Claire Seymour

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