Symphony No.4 in D minor [original version, 1841]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77

Northern Sinfonia
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 21 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

On paper this was a concert in typical form – an overture, albeit not termed as such – a concerto and a symphony, all from central Europe. What could be more traditional than that? Hardly anything at all in this enterprising Prom by that great little orchestral powerhouse of the north, the Northern Sinfonia, now proudly ensconced in what is regarded as one of the most successful of new concert venues, The Sage Gateshead in the Sinfonia’s north-east hometown.

At this point I must (unlike some politicians) register a particular allegiance to the Northern Sinfonia. It was my local band growing up in Carlisle, with its remit to serve the whole of the north and which has – until recently at any rate – played a subscription series in Carlisle, as well as elsewhere in the general area. (By which I mean that recently there was a row brewing over how the orchestra would be represented in Cumbria’s administrative centre, the outcome of which, I don’t know.)

But I needn’t have worried that partisanship would affect my review, as this trip south for the Northern Sinfonia was little short of a triumph. The Prom opened with György Ligeti’s eerily evocative piece for strings, Ramifications, and afforded an opportunity to remember the composer just six weeks after his death. (His next appearance in the Proms Prospectus will see him listed without his first name, appended for living composers, as he has now entered the musical Valhalla.)

Perhaps not ideal for an opener, with the audience too-audibly settling down, Ramifications is actually less avant-garde than might be thought even if the strings are divided into differently pitched sections – here Zehetmair had the violins facing each other, with cellos and basses centre-left – but there could be no doubt as to the composer. Zehetmair – with what seems like impossibly extended arms exacerbated by the long sleeves of his black, smock-like, top – seemed to reach out over each section to draw the silken threads of sound – and silence – from his orchestra, eventually evaporating into a long nothingness. Hopefully, the Proms next year will find room for at least a mini-retrospective for one of the most individual, and charismatic, composers of 20th-century music.

If the overture had not really been one, changes were also rung immediately following, as it was the symphony that came next. And, again, the symphony contained a surprise. Quite well represented at the Proms, and the most popular, with a tally of 22 previous performances, Zehetmair’s performance Schumann’s Fourth Symphony was actually a first! Zehetmair chose to use the Original Version of the D minor symphony, written hot on the tails of the ‘Spring’ First. So – had not Schumann withdrawn the D minor in the face of a rather lacklustre première in 1841 – it should really be known as the Second. He went on to write two more symphonies; then, ten years after discarding it, he returned to the D minor and revised it to be more forceful in its orchestration, and issued it as his Fourth.

With his small forces (in total only 42 players – just two double basses), Zehetmair found the best in this work. None hearing this could describe Schumann’s textures as opaque, the most commonly levied criticism. Here rhythms bounced and each of the woodwinds was plangently individual. It was if a dusty cover had been removed and – like a newly restored painting – colours came alive as fresh as Schumann had composed them 135 years ago.

It was Brahms who ensured that Schumann’s D minor symphony’s Original Version was published, and Brahms’s Violin Concerto is not so rare, of course – 84 previous performances at the Proms including 16 by Ida Haendel. This was surely the first performance without a conductor, though. Yes, Zehetmair was soloist and conductor. Instead of making his solo part even more the centrepiece of the performance, the work seemed more of a whole: an integrated trajectory rather than a ‘soloist versus orchestra’ grudge match. In the first movement Zehetmair played his own cadenza.

The performance as a whole was an example of great ensemble work, and the result was a lithe, flexible and wholly convincing performance that sometimes made you think ‘is that really Brahms?’ So, I’m delighted to report of my ‘home’ band that it seems in better shape than I can ever remember. Hopefully trips south will become much more regular.

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