Violin Concerto in G, K216
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op.30
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 22 October, 2015
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Richard Strauss’s tone-poem Macbeth (written when he was precocious and 23) confirmed Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra as consummate tellers of tales in the second concert of this great ensemble’s Barbican Centre residency. It’s odd, though, that this rather cursory overview of Shakespeare’s most lurid power-couple should omit inspirational gifts such as shrieking witches and pathetic sleep-walking – still, it sounded full of bombast and fury. Tone poem is a bit of a misnomer for this juggernaut of big brass and huge themes, but Chailly, giving its 19th-century provenance (it was written two years after Liszt’s death), made room for some local bagpipe colour, and the Leipzig players characterised the mutually negating pair with the sort of swagger evoked by John Martin’s apocalyptic painting on the same subject.
The orchestra slimmed down considerably for a supremely poised reading of Mozart’s G-major Violin Concerto, heightened by Christian Tetzlaff’s ease with Classical style and played with the sort of artlessness that turns a Mozart Concerto into an opera without words. Tetzlaff can give the smallest adjustment of tone its significance, and there is a marvellous tact to the way he asserted his diva-like partnership with the orchestra, corrective and improving rather than argumentative. He made the point seraphically clear in the slow movement’s extended aria, suspended over muted strings with flutes (rather than the oboes of the outer movements) in discreet attendance. He adopted a ruddier bloom of tone for the Finale, embraced the change of mood in the vulnerable folksong passage with graceful spontaneity and gave us a brief glimpse of virtuosic wizardry before the Concerto evaporated. Chailly’s unfussy brokering of the soloist/orchestra relationship secured a match made in Mozartean heaven.
The opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the best examples of a mutual massaging of musical and visual egos, and Chailly’s conducting of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra showed the same sort of dramatic ambition. It was a relief that the electronic organ didn’t sound synthetic in the sunrise, and it provided a suitable liturgical sweetness to the saccharine overload of the Religion episode. The separation of string desks (antiphonal violins) and soloists made a superlative sound, but it was the preceding hinterland of chaos that gave the clue to the detail and level of imagination driving Chailly’s and the Leipzigers’ rendition.
With blissful accuracy, Chailly honoured the irony, eloquence and self-belief at work in Strauss’s hymn to the human will to power, and he invested the various Nietzschean episodes with a strong narrative sense. The ‘Dance-Song’ is especially prone to lose its way, but Chailly’s direction and Frank-Michael Erben’s playing of the violin’s waltz tune brought the listener to the centre of the Superman’s ecstatic, revelatory dance. As with Cinderella, though, the chimes at midnight (on what sounded like a ship’s bell) and Chailly’s majestic compression of orchestral tone and weight offered a sobering reflection on our frailty and ambiguity. What a great performance.