Violins!! – Part 1

Partita in E, BWV1006 (selection of movements)
Sonata No.2 for solo violin (second and third movements)
Duos for two violins (selection)
Concerto in B minor for four violins and cello, Op.3/No.10
From Holberg’s Time – Suite in the Olden Style
Simple Symphony, Op.4

Jennifer Pike (violin – Bach); Thomas Zehetmair (violin – Hartmann & Bartók); Viktoria Mullova (violin – Bartók)

Soloists in Vivaldi:
Thomas Zehetmair, Bradley Creswick, Kyra Humphreys, Peter Campbell-Kelly (violins) & Alexander Somov (cello)

Northern Sinfonia
Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 30 July, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In a world of ‘bite-sized’ portions it is a shame that classical music has found a niche in the ‘sound-bite’ world. Excerpts and selections present an incomplete picture of composers’ intentions. This is not so pronounced in the music of Bach, who was accustomed to serving up his music in accordance with the flavour and favour of his patron, but Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Sonata No.2 certainly suffered through only its second and third movements being played.

Thomas Zehetmair is a fine musician with an unerring eye for detail. His rhythmical percussive playing in the music of Hartmann and Bartók demonstrated the certainty of his technique, despite, in the latter composer’s Duos, being out-gunned by Viktoria Mullova’s bigger sound. Zehetmair and his eponymous quartet has championed the repertoire of these two composers.

In recent years Zehetmair has worked more as a conductor and in 2002 he became music director of the Northern Sinfonia. Based in Gateshead, on the south bank of the river Tyne, the ensemble has an enviable group of principal string players, four of whom were drawn upon in Vivaldi’s Concerto for four violins and cello: the principal violinist was Zehetmair who also directed.

It is a thing of great beauty to watch a small group of musicians making music; one can even feel an intruder viewing such artistic creation. The musical empathy in the Vivaldi concerto spilled over into Grieg’s Holberg’s Suite. Here, the use of antiphonal violins was a boon. There were no passengers here as the fast-moving melodies were tossed between sections with the deftness of a skilled juggler. A really polished account, although a shame that at least one repeat went by the board. The fourth movement ‘Air’ suspended time for a moment as Zehetmair, for the first time without his fiddle in hand, facilitated the musical outpouring without stamping a dictatorial mark. This was chamber-music of the highest order.

After exquisite Grieg it became disappointingly ponderous Benjamin Britten. The rip-roaring speed of a well articulated ‘Playful Pizzicato’ did make some amends only to be let down by a ‘Sentimental Sarabande’ that simply did not sustain the required emotional pathos.

This concert began with a solitary violin played by one extraordinary violinist, Jennifer Pike, who is at 15 still little more than a child, and closed with Britten the young man looking back to themes composed as a prodigy. “Violins!!” is a showcase for one of the oldest and most versatile of instruments. This was the first concert of the day. Two more to go!

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