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Eschenbach's Promise Kept

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Beethoven, Violin Concerto, C. Tetzlaff, Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, D. Zinman

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Bruckner, Symphony No. 6, Houston SO, C. Eschenbach
This weekend's program from the National Symphony Orchestra finally delivered on the excitement anticipated for Christoph Eschenbach's tenure as music director. Last week's season opener provided part of the picture with the local premiere of a contemporary work, but paired with an undistinguished Beethoven ninth. The second week's program combined two works, one perhaps overplayed, Beethoven's monumental violin concerto, and the other, Bruckner's driven, agitated sixth symphony, not heard from the NSO since 1985, under Erich Leinsdorf. As heard on Saturday night at the final performance, the NSO sounded unified, energized, yet sensitive to their new conductor's ever-wavering beat and mercurial expressive nuance.

Suspicions that Christian Tetzlaff would deliver a memorable performance of the Beethoven violin concerto certainly proved true. With Eschenbach's hand at the rudder, this was an expansive, surprising, and uncompromisingly Romantic interpretation, with plenty of rubato applied to both the orchestral and solo parts. Faced with a choice, Julia Fischer's Apollonian interpretation would still be my top choice for this work, but my listening life is richer for having heard the piece the way Tetzlaff played it. He approached the score quite freely, adding embellishments and splashy details to the solo part, most notably in his own, very unusual cadenzas. These are based on cadenzas that Beethoven later wrote for his orchestral reduction of the concerto for piano, and they add something to one's understanding of the work (Tetzlaff recorded them in a pretty lousy version with the SWF Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra). In the first movement cadenza, the timpanist helps propel the solo part with its four-note motif pulsating underneath, the same motif that opens the entire concerto. All of these cadenzas, one providing a transition at the end of the second movement and two of them in the third movement, helped give the impression of listening to a different piece, or at least a familiar one in an entirely new way.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, Eschenbach, Tetzlaff, Bruckner: The fresh and less familiar faces of the NSO (Washington Post, October 8)
Eschenbach has said that Bruckner's sixth symphony is one of his favorites, a sentiment that the composer shared, leaving it largely unaltered unlike most of his other symphonies. That obsessive timpani theme in the Beethoven was the basis of an ingenious thematic unity with this work, in which many of the movements are propelled by ostinato bass themes. Well rehearsed and played to the hilt, this was a memorable performance, cleanly articulated and featuring an adamantine and explosive brass section (even the horns redeemed themselves for a few exposed flubs in the Beethoven). Bruckner's learned study of counterpoint shines in the expert overlapping of melodies in this work, and while the piece may be overly bombastic (do so many of those fanfare-like flourishes really need to be repeated two or four times?) its dense textures packed quite a sonic wallop. Especially the seething Romantic slow movement, with its motivic emphasis on anguished appoggiature, spearing upward to tortured resolution up to the final chord, suited Eschenbach's voluble style.

Next week Eschenbach will lead a performance (October 14 to 16) of Mahler's fifth symphony. Nathalie Stutzmann's cancellation means that there will be no Mahler songs on the program, unfortunately, replaced with a Mozart symphony.


kishnevi said...

Tetzlaff has also recorded the concerto, with the same cadenzas, with Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle as part of their Beethoven cycle on Arte Nova. It's certainly not a performance I would call lousy.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for that: I have noted a correction!

jfl said...

A terrific performance with Zinman, actually... almost, if not quite, approaching Zehetmair/Brueggen. But at least on the recording I'm pretty sure it's not his own cadenza, but the Schneiderhahn-LvB op.61a version.