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Dvořák, Bartók, and the Brahms Violin Concerto (Nelsons, Tetzlaff, NYP)

8 February 2013

Dvořák: The Noon Witch, Op.108
Brahms: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.77
Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

New York Philharmonic
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, New York
6 February 2013

Christian Tetzlaff is worth hearing in any music, and my previous experience with him in the Brahms concerto suggested that this performance with Andris Nelsons and the New York Philharmonic might be something special. So it proved.

Rather than playing this piece as a concerto “against the violin,” as one contemporary of Brahms put it, Tetzlaff suggests that the violin battles against itself. A narrative spanned the entire concerto, one that fluctuated between foreshadowing the Second Viennese School and leaning towards the swooping lyricism to which lesser violinists subject this concerto. Courageously frayed and fractured playing in the first movement, playing disinterested in aural beauty for its own sake, slowly ceded ground to greater refinement in the slow movement and a merrier bounce in the finale. All the while the harsher edge refused to give way entirely.* In the long Allegro non troppo in particular Tetzlaff took a radically snatchy approach, an attack that brought Schoenberg, Berg and even (Tetzlaff’s!) Birtwistle to mind. Playing with phrase lengths, volume, and even intonation, this was radically ugly at times, but there was clearly a journey that underpinned it all, as was made clearer when Tetzlaff unleashed his purest tone while emerging softly from the cadenza. There was a journey too from the Philharmonic, which, despite warmth of tone, only really began to take note of Nelsons’ movements after Tetzlaff’s entry. From there, though, Nelsons drove a smooth, dialogic way around Tetzlaff, particularly firing up the orchestra into the recapitulation.

Despite sweetness of tone, Tetzlaff’s fractured view of this music did not disappear in the slow movement. The oboe solo was delivered in a lovely long line, and upon Tetzlaff’s entry it became clear that the troubles of the first movement denied such plain lyricism to the violin. But with an ever more typically Romantic tone, there seemed hope. The finale continued with much the same counterpoint, its dance-like inflections delivered with a shattered tone that contrasted nicely with the rusticity of other phrases. Nelsons drew celebratory playing from the orchestra, supporting Tetzlaff’s progress. But Tetzlaff never quite made it to the triumphs one expected, which surely says something important about a composer whose music so rarely manages to get past equivocation – and something important about Tetzlaff’s understanding.

The rest of the programme was taken up by Dvořák and Bartók. The Noon Witch received a fine performance, clear in its treatment of the folk tale Dvořák used rather literally for inspiration. Admirably, Nelsons focused less on thrills than Dvořák’s transformations of thematic material, particularly in the scene in which the witch chases a mother protecting her naughty child. He also crafted a sound from the Philharmonic that maintained an endearing lightness, rightly lending the whole symphonic poem an air of the enchanted and magical.

The Bartók was equally fine. The Philharmonic’s brass section seemed particularly up for this composer’s challenges, and Nelsons let them off their leash and allowed them to ring with brazen fullness. A fleet, puckish second movement always kept its title in mind – ‘Game of Couples’ – while allowing orchestral sections to shine. The strings brought intensity to the ‘Elegy’, and a lush kind of wit to the ‘Interrupted Intermezzo’. Whirling energy in the finale prefigured a winning conclusion. But to be honest, good as this performance was, it will be the Brahms that sticks in the memory.

NYP / Facebook

* What the NYT is on about regarding this performance I do not know, particularly as the reviewer quotes a New Yorker profile of Tetzlaff (without the quotation’s context) that sets out what the violinist is currently trying to do. Tetzlaff clearly knows, as Adorno suggested, that we cannot but hear the music of the past through the ears of the present.

Anyway, the NYP immediately put out the picture to the left, in an admirable defence of the violinist.

In a bad day for this particular writer, her piece on the Met’s new Parsifal, pre-published online before the weekend arts section, contains as yet uncorrected factual errors. The idea that “to this day there is no applause at the end of a “Parsifal” performance in Bayreuth” is nonsense. Nor did Wagner call Parsifal a “Bühnenweihspiel”; rather, a Bühnenweihfestspiel.

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