United States Elgar, Tchaikovsky: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), San Francisco Symphony / Simone Young (conductor). Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, 4.12.2021. (HS)
Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5 in E minor
There’s no denying it. Simone Young is a powerhouse conductor, as she demonstrated Saturday in the last of three performances on an all-too-short visit with the San Francisco Symphony. The Australian conductor can shape big scores by the likes of Wagner and Richard Strauss into the sort of coherent, sharply focused engines that thrill audiences, so it was no surprise when she wrestled the wanderings of Edward Elgar’s broad-beamed Violin Concerto into a lapel-grabbling example of symphonic oratory. A bold performance by the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff completed the picture.
Young got the concerto off to a strong start, drawing richly embossed playing in the opening orchestral statement. When Tetzlaff entered, the first thing I noticed was the instrument’s sound. His violin (from Stefan-Pieter Greiner, the contemporary London-based German maker) looked bigger than most, and so was the tone – pure, rich and commanding, with a golden aura. It was agile enough to dance under Tetzlaff’s fingers.
That sound carried the solo line’s side of an engaging conversation with the orchestra, the violin’s immediacy and Tetzlaff’s presence matching Young’s urgency in the long opening movement. The eloquent Andante, the shortest of the three movements, provide a restful interlude before rising to a noble conclusion. Tetzlaff met all the challenges of the Allegro molto finale, with its double stops and soaring melodic lines that reach the top of the instrument’s range.
The piece ends with a long, extravagant cadenza. Elgar wrote it for the legendary Fritz Kreisler, who championed the work and played it often. A 16-year-old Yehudi Menuhin was the last violinist who worked with Elgar on this piece, and his 1932 recording of it remains in circulation. Unusually, strumming strings and soft chords in the orchestra accompany the cadenza, an engaging and ultimately rewarding touch, as both soloist and orchestra connected seamlessly, barreling into the final chords.
That might have been the highlight of the evening, except for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony which followed the intermission. Young made every return of the omnipresent theme gleam with newfound specificity, a key element in a performance that took full advantage of the orchestra’s heart-on-sleeve enthusiasm and finely tuned rhythmic drive.
It began softly with a beautifully rendered clarinet line played by principal Carey Bell. Young’s tempo was just quick enough to keep this central germ of an idea moving forward. Soulfully rendered solos by principal horn Robert Ward and principal oboe Eugene Izotov highlighted the Andante cantabile second movement, and the recurring theme found its apotheosis in the changing colors from the entire brass section in the majestic finale’s reiterations of it.
Presiding over all of this, from his position at the center back of the orchestra, timpanist Edward Stephan seemed to be driving the bus. The kettle drums have a lot to say in this symphony, especially in the finale, where Stephan’s accuracy and rhythmic drive were key to the elation of the final minutes. His flair in executing the arm-crossing show-off moments only added to the effect.