Scottish Symphony

Manfred, Op.115 – Overture
Violin Concerto in D, Op.61
Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.56 (Scottish)

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 15 August, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Another packed Royal Albert Hall welcomed the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its Chief Conductor for an early-Romantic sandwich with Beethoven as the filling. Billed as a Prom continuing this season’s marking of 2006 being 150 years since the composer’s death, Robert Schumann’s overture (from his incidental music for Byron’s ‘verse-drama’) received an unremarkable performance and was quite in contrast with the two pieces that followed.

Beethoven’s middle-period masterpiece, the Violin Concerto was not well received at its first performance in 1806. The composer uncharacteristically completed it in a rush finishing only hours before the first performance in which the soloist, Franz Clement, sight-read his part. The piece did not gain wider popularity until nearly twenty years after Beethoven’s death when Joachim toured the work with his friend Mendelssohn conducting.

Jiří Bělohlávek’s sustained opening to the concerto was well positioned – Classical in style and not too sentimental, the orchestra accompanying Christian Tetzlaff sympathetically and allowing for a thoughtful sotto voce exploration of the work. A slightly out-of-time clarinet and a light ethereal touch from Tetzlaff led from the second movement Larghetto to a boisterous and playful third movement. Soloist and orchestra were united on tempo and style with Tetzlaff interpolating short, unwritten solos when the theme of the rondo was repeated.

A year after the first performance, Beethoven arranged the concerto for piano, which was better received and was championed by virtuosos of the time, among whom was the composer and pianist Clementi. Christian Tetzlaff has made arrangements of the cadenzas from the piano version, transcribing them back for the violin – a neat trick if musically baffling. (But not novel, though, as Wolfgang Schneiderhan did this, too, and which he recorded with Eugen Jochum more than four decades ago, and also played by Viktoria Mullova and Thomas Zehetmair.) The use of timpani in the cadenza is taken straight from the piano version and is, of course, Beethoven’s own idea (with Alfred Schnittke also including timpani in the cadenza that he wrote in the 1970s for Gidon Kremer’s use when he performed the Beethoven concerto) – though I doubt the composer himself would have chosen to do so had he left us his own violin cadenzas.

At the end of the concerto, one felt that Tetzlaff was just warming up and was now ready to start the performance – and he went on to give a quite remarkable performance of the Andante from Bach’s A minor Sonata for unaccompanied violin.

Mendelssohn’s Third was the last of his five symphonies to be written (the 12 ‘String Symphonies’ are outside of this canon) and was completed in 1842 having been inspired by a trip to Scotland – in particular Holyrood Palace – in 1829.

First heard in Leipzig, after the first London performance Mendelssohn dedicated the ‘Scottish’ Symphony to Queen Victoria who was a great admirer of his music. The four movements are linked, which is both musically satisfying and because Mendelssohn disliked audiences applauding during works, particularly his own. Bělohlávek adhered to the composer’s wishes concerning these attaccas, though the join between the second and third movements is, in my view, made by the subdued cadence at the end of the Vivace rather than a strict interpretation of ‘moving on without a break’.

A sonorous opening to the symphony led to a dancing agitato with light off-the-string playing, in particular from the cellos; phrases were tossed around in a demonstration of effortless glee. A jocular, though colourless clarinet solo opened the lively second movement: emphatic mimicry in the inner string parts together with chattering woodwinds delightfully captured the composer’s gay-abandon as he traversed the Scottish highlands. A sustained and full-bodied Adagio gave way to a bristling and energetic finale – lightning-fast and exuding enjoyment; Jiří Bělohlávek certainly got the best out of the BBC Symphony Orchestra on this occasion.

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