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Beethoven & Sibelius Violin Concertos, Tetzlaff, Ticciati

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Music review: Beethoven & Sibelius Violin Concertos, Christian Tetzlaff, Robin Ticciati, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin / Ondine

Ticciati is a young conductor who gave us fresh accounts of the Brahms symphonies last year on the Linn label. His performances usually edge towards period practice: fleet tempi, sharp attacks, transparent textures. As for Tetzlaff, he has established himself as one of the most significant violinists of our times, stepping into both the classical and the contemporary repertoire. He has already recorded both works before: the Sibelius with Dausgaard and the Beethoven twice (with Gielen and Zinman respectively).

But let’s see how these new performances fare. As far as living violinists go, Tetzlaff’s playing is characterized by perfect precision and alertness and here his performance is no routine: even though he sticks to the score, he knows when to be expressive and when to refrain from being too emotional, adding small doses of lyricism to his phrasing. This is obvious from the first movement of the Beethoven concerto where the ultra-careful pianissimi are admirable. He also carefully stresses certain phrases to make them stand out without sounding distracting or unusual. For the cadenza, he uses the same one he had employed in his previous recordings: the timpani-heavy version for the piano transcription — rhythmically exuberant and oddly contemporary sounding.

As for the Sibelius Concerto, Tetzlaff is here even more impressive. In the first movement, he brings out the song-like qualities of the longer phrases. His playing seems to be in perfect balance with the folk melodies and the icy-cold precision suits the chilly atmosphere of the work. In the final movement, there is some beautiful interplay between violin and orchestra that stands out. But for me, it is Tetzlaff’s expressiveness that shines here and breathes new air into this most gorgeous of all violin concertos.

So is this the perfect recording then? Unfortunately, not. The orchestral contribution is not on par with Tetzlaff’s breathtaking playing with Ticciati being curiously undramatic in his approach in both concertos. In the Beethoven, I miss the depth and mystery, the effect of fate knocking at the door, anachronistic as it may sound. I get a sense that, especially in the first movement, Beethoven composed some of his most mysteriously powerful music and both elements — mystery and power — are missing here. I am not saying the playing is bland: on the contrary, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin usually produces some of the most refined string sound and characteristic brass. But here, under Ticciati, something odd happens: while the conductor emphasizes some detail that usually remains unnoticed in other recordings, he understates core chunks of the score: A thin wall of strings, with winds in particular and percussion hidden away. I cannot tell if this has been the conductor’s choice or a distant recording, but it does detract from the enjoyment of both works.

Just listen to the ending of the outer movements of the Sibelius Concerto, which both fail to make an impact. Or, in the last movement, from 4:25-4:40, where despite the wonderful playing from Tetzlaff, the conductor de-emphasizes the beautiful orchestral contribution. Or going back to the first movement, where is the eerie atmosphere that the work usually evokes? It is a pity really because Tetzlaff’s performance is glorious.

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Tetzlaff fans (and there are many, myself included) should not hesitate. His playing has matured even further, and he has re-thought these concertos. But for an overall visceral experience, where the orchestra also fully supports these two concertos, his previous recordings should not be missed. Especially, his recording of the Beethoven violin concerto with Zinman and the Tonhalle Zurich could be a modern first choice for both the violinist’s sense of urgency and Zinman’s super-alert execution of the score. Don’t get me wrong, Tetzlaff is magnificent here, but the whole release is let down at places by Ticciati’s understated orchestral contribution.

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