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NSO and Tetzlaff

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J. Widmann, Violin Concerto, C. Tetzlaff, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, D. Harding
(Ondine, 2013)
Christoph Eschenbach began a slow-moving cycle of the Beethoven symphonies soon after he took the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra. After no. 3 and no. 7 in 2012 and no. 9 in 2010, it was time for the first two symphonies, packaged together on the same program. If it seems like a way to get two of the least-appreciated Beethoven symphonies out of the way at the same time -- the draw was not even all that great in terms of audience -- that impression was reinforced by the performance of the two works heard on Friday night in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

Sandwiched between the two symphonies was the U.S. premiere of Jörg Widmann's violin concerto, premiered in 2007. While the composer's Armonica, performed by the NSO in 2012, left me underwhelmed, this work, more austere and rarefied, held my attention. The effect was due not least to the soloist, Christian Tetzlaff (last heard with the NSO in 2010), who premiered the work and has an intense expertise over it. The soloist never stops playing during this half-hour concerto, in a single movement dense with ideas, meaning that Tetzlaff, playing from a score, required a page-turner, who sat at the side of the conductor's podium. The score begins low on the violin, which is answered by somber, low sounds from the orchestra, which sets up the main theme of the piece from one point of view. Throughout the concerto, the violin and the orchestra explore the same sonorities -- lush melodies answered by harp and metallic percussion, the stratospheric sounds of the E string and cosmic harmonics draw forth the celesta and other high instruments, more percussive attacks correspond to the ratchet and col legno strings. Tetzlaff's immaculate intonation kept those impossibly high notes more beautiful than painful, giving the sense of the instrument producing sounds it was never meant to make.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, NSO review: The good, the bad and the plodding of Eschenbach in 2014 (Washington Post, February 28)
As a teenager, I listened obsessively to the Beethoven symphonies, on cassette recordings of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm, and as a result they are engraved on my memory. The performance of both these symphonies by Eschenbach and the NSO were marked by odd tempo choices, a lot that felt half-formed, even a stray trumpet entrance, I think, in the finale of the second symphony. The first movement of no. 1 had an Allegro con brio section in which the brio was felt more in terms of articulation than pacing. The woodwind contributions were quite good, a tribute to the depth of the flute and oboe sections, where the principal players were sitting out in the concert's first half. The second movement was sweet and quite delicate, while the third movement's menuetto felt too fast, while it was the fun finale that had the most playful and enjoyable character. By contrast, no. 2's first movement, also marked Allegro con brio, felt extremely fast, full of activity but rough-edged, while the slow movement had some lovely quiet moments. The buzzing pace of the third movement made the sixteenth notes blurry too often, but the finale had a pleasant pop to it.

This concert repeats this evening (March 1, 8 pm), in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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