Tetzlaff and Luisi Combine Imagination with Respect for the Material

United StatesUnited States Glinka and Tchaikovsky: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Philadelphia Orchestra, Fabio Luisi (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 7.1.2016. (BJ)

Glinka: Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, Op. 43; Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique

Christian Tetzlaff used to cut an impeccably traditional and somewhat prematurely middle-aged figure on stage—clean-shaven, with short hair, glasses, and the sort of clothing that was thought of as de rigeur in the hallowed precincts of what was rather one-dimensionally labeled “serious music.” The man who took the stage to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto on this occasion presented a quite different aspect—he looks, in the words of a famous Bob Dylan song, “younger than that now,” informally garbed, and sporting longer hair and a small beard. But as in the case of “the artist formerly known as Nigel Kennedy” when he more radically re-branded himself as just “Kennedy,” the quality of Tetzlaff’s playing, both technically and expressively, has remained blessedly constant, and at this point, just three months short of his fiftieth birthday, he must surely be ranked with Leonidas Kavakos and James Ehnes as supreme among male violinists of the under-fifty generation.

Having encountered Tetzlaff most often in repertoire of decidedly intellectual nature, I was curious to hear how he would respond to a romantic warhorse like the Tchaikovsky concerto. What transpired, perhaps not surprisingly, was an interpretation essentially affirming that, in the music of the great composers, intellect and emotion are in no way mutually exclusive. What was traditional in the work—its rich, ripe romanticism—he realized in full measure, while what seemed to me especially fresh in his playing was its imaginative interweaving of different kinds of bowing. The legato was smooth and lyrical, the détaché exhilarating, and the structurally important contrast between them vivid to a degree that I never been conscious of before.

The splendid support Tetzlaff received from the orchestra included some admirably resonant contributions from the woodwind section. Aside from the perfect intonation of their ensemble sound, moreover, associate principal flute David Cramer, principal clarinet Ricardo Morales, and principal oboe Richard Woodhams offered eloquent solos at various points in the evening, and co-principal bassoon Mark Gigliotti set the lugubrious scene in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony with superbly solid and expressive fashion.

The whole orchestra, indeed, played beautifully for guest conductor Fabio Luisi, who began the proceedings with a dashing account of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture, and went on to demonstrate an admirable blend of technical aplomb, emotional intensity, and respect for the importance of silence. In the Tchaikovsky symphony, in particular, he never yielded to the temptation of shortchanging the many pauses that go to the making of its overwhelming pathos.

There are two ways for a conductor to present the brilliant third-movement march, and Luisi took the non-interventionist approach, refusing to slow down even a smidgen to usher in the final big statement of the theme. At the end of this movement, there was the inevitable burst of applause from the audience. Some years ago, believe it or not, there was a Philadelphia music critic whom I shall charitably leave nameless and who is said to have suggested in all seriousness that the obvious way to avoid disruption at that juncture would be to reverse the order of the last two movements. Such was Luisi’s calm authority, however, that the interruption lasted only a moment, and the concluding Adagio lamentoso made its grief-laden impact unimpaired.

Bernard Jacobson

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