OAE/Rattle – Brahms & Schumann – 14 December

Tragic Overture, Op.81
Variations on the St Anthony Chorale, Op.56a
Violin Concerto in D minor
Symphony No.4 in D minor (1841 version)

Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Sir Simon Rattle

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 December, 2003
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The relationship between Schumann and Brahms goes beyond the ’mentor-disciple’ relationship, such that concerts which juxtapose their music are always likely to prove illuminating. So it proved in the first of two OAE concerts with Sir Simon Rattle – featuring rare and unexpected Schumann, and Brahms in alternately earnest and sanguine mood.

Had Brahms designated his Tragic Overture a symphony, no one could have argued on the basis of its clarity or concentration of design. Rattle found an appropriately stoical eloquence, while marginally overstating the portentousness of the opening and suffusing the magical transition out of the central episode with a Mahlerian intensity which undermined the overall coherence of the piece.

As much through the circumstances of its genesis and rediscovery as its actual music, Schumann’s Violin Concerto can never be assessed objectively. Thomas Zehetmair has been a champion of the work throughout his career, and there was no doubting the depth of his commitment, nor of Rattle’s awareness of the need to balance textures which are dense even by the standards of late Schumann. With an ensemble as responsive as the OAE, this was scarcely a problem – enabling soloist and conductor to shape the opening movement so that it had gravitas without becoming turgid, and with a naturalness of phrasing in the slow movement that made its pale radiance the more affecting.

Zehetmair seems to have taken on board strictures over the tempo of the finale; its underlying polonaise is now weightier and more trenchant, though such was the rapport between him and Rattle that the near-gratuitous repetitions of the main theme were never inflected the same way twice – a triumph of interpretative skill over compositional uncertainty. Whatever the doubts concerning its provenance (was it really an elaborate ploy to bolster the Third Reich’s cultural credentials prior to the Anschluss?), the work cannot fail to absorb when rendered with such magnetism as here.

Interesting, too, how the sound of an orchestra can influence the conception as well as the feel of a performance. At the Proms in September, Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic gave as torpid an account of Brahms’s ’Haydn Variations’ as can be imagined. Now, working with the clean timbres and light textures of the OAE (and a very different venue!), he surprised with the range of his insight into this most genial of works: especially perceptive were the plaintive fourth and easeful sixth variations, while the final passacaglia brought purposefulness and nobility into satisfying accord.

Finally, a rare opportunity to hear Schumann’s Fourth Symphony in its original 1841 incarnation. This means no exposition repeats in the first and last movements, and briefer, plainer transitions out of the slow introduction and between the scherzo and finale. Texturally, things are kept lighter, more pliable – though not necessarily simpler, lending Beethovenian exuberance to the outer movements, which Rattle clearly relished. Yet there was no sense of strain in his propulsive account, stressing the confidence with which Schumann, at this stage in his composing, was addressing the question of symphonic form and its relevance post-Beethoven. The scherzo moved lithely and suavely, while the brief Romanza brought a touching response from oboe and cello – their haunting combination a tonal constant in European music from Schumann to Busoni.

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