Die Zauberflöte – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 11 April, 2002
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thomas Dausgaard here made an auspicious debut with the CBSO in a programme featuring a large-scale work new to Birmingham audiences.
Completed in 1903, Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) is a symphonic treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytalein three substantial movements. In his animated pre-concert talk, Dausgaard touched in much of the narrative background, while emphasising that the music proceeds autonomously from the storyline. This latter is most apparent in the level of the ’leitmotifs’ which permeate the score, giving a fair degree of unity across and between movements. Had Zemlinsky described the work as his Third Symphony (following those in D minor and B flat), few commentators would have dissented.
Orchestrally, this is among Zemlinsky’s most translucent works, uninhibited in the opulence of its textures and range of dynamics. Stylistically too the work takes in the range of late-Romantic composers (not least Tchaikovsky in an unashamed near-quote from the Fifth Symphony), and it is a tribute to Zemlinsky’s understated but readily definable personality that it leaves an individual and lasting impression. Soulful is the term that sums up the music’s essence, as it commemorates the composer’s brief but intense involvement with Alma Schindler (soon to Mrs Mahler).
Premiered at the same concert as Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, Die Seejungfrau was withdrawn for revisions which never took place, and only revived – after the full score had been reassembled from sources in Vienna and the USA – in 1984. Several recordings have followed, including a powerful account from tonight’s conductor with the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (CHANDOS CHAN 9601). The present performance was even more vital, though the CBSO was never phased by either the unfamiliar idiom or Dausgaard’s trenchant handling of it. In particular, leader Jacqueline Hartley made the most of the brief but expressive solos that define the expressive ’feel’ of the music.
Dausgaard opened with an engaging rendering of Mozart’s Zauberflöte overture, and continued with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. He is currently recording all of Beethoven’s orchestral music with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, and the light, resilient textures he drew from a scaled-down CBSO were a delight. Sometimes too robust, even so, for the light, silvery tone of Pekka Kuusisto, whose clarity of articulation and intimacy of gesture gave the work a chamber-like dimension.
Wisely, Kuusisto avoided the customary Kreisler cadenza in the opening movement for an abbreviated version of that which Beethoven wrote for the piano transcription. If the overall performance could have projected even more strongly on its own terms, there was no doubting the consistency and individuality of Kuusisto’s approach. His encore, the ’Sarabande’ from Bach’s B minor Partita, was equally arresting in its vibrato-less purity and exquisitely-judged reticence.