Christian Tetzlaff Gives His All in Elgar’s Violin Concerto

19/05/2019

Elgar, Rachmaninoff: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), BBC Philharmonic / John Storgårds (conductor). Bridgewater Hall Manchester, 18.5.2019. (RBa)

John Storgårds

Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor (1910)

Rachmaninoff – Symphony No. 3 (1936)

This concert treated Manchester to two very substantial works worthy of this part of the Northern Powerhouse. No overture this time. Instead, the Bridgewater Hall (about 90% full) was launched straight into Elgar’s epic concerto. When Christian Tetzlaff, on a recent visit to Manchester, played Magnus Lindberg’s Concerto, Simon Webb, Director of the BBC Philhamonic, noted how well the soloist’s style and resplendently large sound would be a good fit for the Elgar. With the score on a stand in front of him, Tetzlaff played the Elgar for the first time at this concert. This is perhaps unusual for a work whose recording has become a rite of passage for many of the great and the good. As a concerto, it stands in that capacity with the Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. Tetzlaff tackled the latter not so long ago. Alan Sanders praised him in his review. Part of theatre of the moment was the aplomb with which Tetzlaff dealt with a broken string. No such incident here, but there was understandable applause between the movements.

The performance was, in the outer movements, not in the least relaxed. There was no hint of stately inertia, limpness or lack of forward impulse. This was an impassioned account in a work that in the first two movements spares the soloist hardly a moment when he is not playing. The orchestra were under the well-liked, appreciative and respected John Storgårds. He is the orchestra’s chief guest conductor, and a violinist of note (not least in Leevi Madetoja’s concerto on Ondine ODE 923-2). Storgårds conducted without a baton in the middle movement, which was notable for being shaped, almost literally, as an unforced essay in tenderness. The finale began with the sense of youth rising and flickering from the warmth of the Andante’s sun-bathed fields. Other breathtaking landmarks in the finale included some superbly skeletal pianissimi and the two moments when the violins emulate the distant playing of a band of mandolins as the world stands still. All in all, the last movement was an essay in good things, both delicate and heroic. Tetzlaff gave an encore which I think was a Bach lento, delivered with the most vestigial honeyed veneer: so very quiet.

After the interval came Rachmaninoff’s Symphony, written in his villa in Lucerne, but premiered and then recorded by him in Philadelphia twenty years after his emigration from Russia. The score was against the torrent of the times but ironically even sympathetic friends like Medtner expressed fears that it represented a conversion to ‘modernism’. The latter was a trend in reaction to which Rachmaninoff said: ‘I feel like a ghost wandering in a world grown alien. I cannot cast out the old way of writing, and I cannot acquire the new. The new kind of music seems to come, not from the heart, but from the head. Its composers think rather than feel.’

Rachmaninoff had lived to experience the winter of opinion, and this afflicted his compositions. A thaw and eventually a flood was to come but not until the second half of the last century. True, there were stranded islands of appreciation in the 1950s. Golovanov’s recording of the Second Symphony in 1945, two years after the composer’s death, was one such. For the most part, Grove V’s lukewarmth or worse prevailed as an artistic norm: the music was considered just too sentimental, too slushy. I seem to remember one piece of musical invective that came out when Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony was premiered. It was something along the lines that the composer was still throwing the same grand costume balls but that the guests had long since forsaken the festivities (that may have been Olin Downes). Things changed from the 1960s onwards. There was first a trickle (including Kondrashin’s early 1960s Moscow Symphonic Dances) then a sustained flood from the likes of Previn, Sanderling, Boult, Paray, Kletzki and others. It was not that long ago that the Bridgewater Hall resounded to James Feddeck and the BBCPO in the Second Symphony.

The three-movement Third Symphony fields a big variegated band – bigger than for the Elgar – and includes harp, celesta, tambourine and xylophone. The orchestration is remarkably lucid, more so than in the concerto which suffers a little from density of texture. The surge and swell of the music was well conjured, chiselled and well defined but not so much that things would become stilted. One feature, among many, that registered with me, in this case probably for the first time, was how the composer ushers in the first and second movements with solo horn and flute(s). The writing introduces one of those Rachmaninoff melodies which rack up, a gentle and almost imperceptible gradient to the heights. The performance wended its studied way, balancing both the broad sweep and the chatter of small phrases. In the finale, allowing for a far from academic fugal section, the composer lets the bridle hang free on an access of feel-good excitable writing. Remarkable pages of flute-led and clarinet-continued effervescence take us to the last blast that seems both uninhibited and superbly calculated.

Rob Barnett

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