Royal Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair at Milton Court with Ruth Killius – Don Giovanni, Bartók, That Subtle Knot, Beethoven’s Fifth

Don Giovanni, K527 – Overture
Viola Concerto [completed by Tibor Serly]
John Casken
That Subtle Knot [co-commissioned by Thomas Zehetmair, Ruth Killius and Sage Gateshead for Royal Northern Sinfonia: London premiere]
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Ruth Killius (viola)

Royal Northern Sinfonia
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 13 June, 2014
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Thomas Zehetmair. Photograph: Keith PattisonThis was Thomas Zehetmair saying „Auf Wiedersehen!” to the members of the Royal Northern Sinfonia in his very final concert as music director after twelve years in the role. He is succeeded by Lars Vogt. This same programme was played two evenings ago in Sage Gateshead (broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and available on the iPlayer for seven days). The Overture to Don Giovanni made a dramatic start, the eponymous bad boy lurking in the shadows, the music tense with anticipation but also given time to express itself, crisply played and with bags of character.

It’s easy to overlook Bartók’s Viola Concerto as being a relatively slight work and also because he left his draft score in something of a mess. It took Tibor Serly some time to complete the work intended for William Primrose. There are two further editions now, one by Peter Bartók (the composer’s son) and the other by Csaba Erdélyi. This RNS rendition stuck with Serly’s pioneering version. Ruth Killius (Mrs Zehetmair) gave a truly superb performance – with rich tone, spot-on intonation, communicative phrasing and athletic music-serving virtuosity – and really brought the music alive, finding rustic vitality and deep nostalgia in the romantic and rhapsodic first movement (and also, maybe surprisingly, parallels with Hindemith’s music, himself a violist). Following on, the slow movement was darker and yet innocent, and the finale, cued by brazen horns and thunderous timpani (Serly’s orchestration also includes contrabassoon and trombones), was an exhilarating (Hungarian) dance contrasted by folksy interludes. This was something of a revelation, marvellously projected by Killius and vividly and sensitively accompanied, a ‘family affair’ (one for all…).

John Casken’s That Subtle Knot (2014) is a concerto for violin and viola, a substantial piece in two movements, roughly 15 minutes each. The title comes from John Donne. This is top-drawer music opening with a meditative viola solo, joined by ethereal violin and then sombre woodwinds (including bass clarinet). Casken (born 1949) divides each movement into three related sections – “calm-animated-calm” and “floating-enflamed-floating”. Thus the first movement grows in poetic and harmonic complexity and becomes agitated, the outpouring seemingly liberated yet rigorously controlled. The second one is sacred and anguished. A dance-like figure enters but never shakes off its shackles, the music rising to catharsis and then becoming enchanted. That Subtle Knot is a rich and compelling score, singularly impressive (maybe that should be ‘doubly’), satisfyingly intricate yet lucid, and once again found Killius outstanding, her husband (directing with his bow and other gestures) scarcely less fine. Casken was present and warmly received. Killius and Zehetmair added a short encore, barely a minute and purely pizzicato, certainly by Bartók (Zehetmair said so), so maybe it was one of his 44 Duos, nominally for two violins and perhaps here tweaked to include a viola.

As for Beethoven’s Fifth – well… This music doesn’t always have to be given in the Furtwängler, Giulini or Klemperer mould – or today that of Thielemann – but continually moved-along/fast/hectic speeds and an orchestra of ‘just’ eight first-violins down to two double basses – and with minimal vibrato – really does decommission the music’s power, weight and darkness-to-light massiveness. True, Zehetmair clarified many details and the immediate, slightly tapped-up acoustic of Milton Court Concert Hall threw everything at the audience (on Radio 3 it had seemed like not enough players in a too big acoustic) but it was also lightweight and ultimately seemed inconsequential. However, it must also be said – and strongly – that the Royal Northern Sinfonia members were outstanding in their dedication and responsiveness to Zehetmair’s conception (Steven Hudson’s oboe solo in the first movement was a moment of rare beauty) – incisive, intense and on their mettle from first note to last. No doubt Thomas Zehetmair will be returning to Gateshead numerous times as a guest.

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