Boston Symphony Orchestra – Christian Tetzlaff plays New York premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto

Rondo in C for Violin and Orchestra, K373
Violin Concerto [Boston Symphony Orchestra commission: New York premiere]
Violin Concerto No.2

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Marcelo Lehninger

Reviewed by: Gene Gaudette

Reviewed: 15 March, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Christian Tetzlaff. Photograph: alexandra-vosding.deChristian Tetzlaff is one of the most adventurous and interesting first-rank violinists around. Here he appeared with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under its assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger, who replaced the indisposed James Levine.

Tetzlaff’s playful and charming approach to Mozart’s Rondo was immediately winning, despite accompaniment that was too texturally thick, a dynamic degree too loud, and sometimes a bit ragged in execution — a dispiriting contrast to the unanimity the Bostonians have been delivering in the last few years under Levine.

Christian Tetzlaff, Marcelo Lehninger & Harrison Birtwistle at Boston Symphony Hall for the world premiere of Birtwistle's Violin Concerto. Photograph: Michael J LutchHarrison Birtwistle writes in a complex style devoid for the most part of tonality and filled with frequent changes in meter and rhythmic pulse. His Violin Concerto, completed last year, is one of his most substantial works with orchestra in many years. The concerto puts enormous demands on the soloist. Tetzlaff dispatched the dizzying, difficult material – scalar passages, double-stops, and rapid-fire percussive melodic passages – with astonishing ease, solid intonation, and strong contrasts of color. The orchestra is replete with Birtwistle’s characteristic exploitation of sectional timbres to create tone-clusters and thick chords, sudden flourishes and swift clutches of contrapuntal melody, and rhythmic ostinatos that change tempo or time-signature with surprising effect. There are five “dialogue-duet” passages within the concerto during which the violin and a single orchestral instrument (piccolo, flute, oboe, cello, bassoon) share the foreground musical material.

Marcelo Lehninger conducting the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra. Photograph: www.marcelolehninger.comLehninger’s conducting and cues were quite clear, but there didn’t seem to be the abundant contrast in timbres, phrasing, or color that Birtwistle calls for, and outside of Tetzlaff’s contribution and that of the dialoguing co-soloists, the music never really seemed to take flight – until the slow, evocative coda, which is one of the most beautiful passages in Birtwistle’s more-recent output (Pulse Shadows, Secret Theatre). I was not as impressed with this work as with some of Birtwistle’s works from the past few decades, but that may well have been a result of what seemed cautious playing from the orchestra; I also sense that some of the wider dynamics were underplayed. Levine, a champion of new and thorny works to which he frequently brings lucidity and insight, was largely responsible for securing this premiere; I can only wonder how the work would have sounded under his direction.

Things went quite a bit better in the Bartók, though I was caught off-guard by Tetzlaff’s gentler handling of the first movement’s opening theme, conveyed with more cantabile and less rhythmic force than most violinists bring to it. Lehninger also conjured more warmth than one normally expects from this opening theme and in each of its reappearances – after the initial shock, this completely different and welcome character to the opening movement provided plenty of rhythmic energy in the contrasting themes along with more than a touch of Hungarian gypsy phrasing. Tetzlaff emphasized tenderness and passion in the second movement, which often seems brooding and melancholy, and the orchestra sounded the best of the evening; the finale yielded playful, virtuosic playing from all.

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