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Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Fantasy in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 24 [23:16]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 [30:20]
Romance in F minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 11 [12:27]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/John Storgĺrds
rec. Helsinki Music Centre, 29 September-2 October 2015
Reviewed in CD format
ONDINE ODE1279-5 SACD  [66:32]

This is Christian Tetzlaff’s second recording of the Dvořák Violin Concerto. The first, issued by Virgin in 2001, was rather imaginatively coupled with the Symphonie espagnole of Lalo, before being reissued in 2007 in company with rather less than satisfactory performances of Dvořák’s Piano Concerto and Waldesruhe for Cello and Orchestra. This latter release was reviewed in 2008 by Jonathan Woolf, who stated that it “scores highly amongst contemporary performances” and praised Tetzlaff in particular for being “commendably quick on his feet – fast but not at all superficial” and playing “with spirit, tone and imagination, well seconded by the orchestra”.

For this new recording made in Finland, Tetzlaff combines the concerto with one of Dvořák’s other two concertante works featuring a solo violin, the gorgeous early Romance in F minor for Violin and Orchestra, and the sole work for such forces ever composed by his son-in-law Josef Suk. This precise combination of works has to my knowledge appeared only twice before: in the latest reincarnation of classic early 1960s performances by Josef Suk (the composer’s grandson) and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel Ančerl (Supraphon SU 3668-2 011), accounts which simply ooze authority and authenticity, but do so in rather limited sound; and in a 1998 Decca release (460 316-2) featuring Pamela Frank with Sir Charles Mackerras and, again, the Czech Philharmonic, an issue which has been generally well received, though in some quarters more for the Suk than the Dvořák. One should also not forget the recent recording by Josef Špaček, Jiří Bělohlávek and – no prizes for guessing – the Czech Philharmonic, in which the Dvořák Concerto and Suk Fantasy appear alongside Janáček’s brief reconstructed violin concerto known as The Wandering of a Little Soul. This attracted a positive review from Leslie Wright in June 2015.

When one considers also the large number of excellent CDs on which the Dvořák Violin Concerto is coupled with quite different works (including such recent performances as those by James Ehnes, Isabelle Faust or Anne-Sophie Mutter), it is clear Tetzlaff is up against formidable opposition indeed. So it is just as well that his performance is a thoroughly excellent one – one of the best new concerto records, in fact, that I have encountered for some time.

If I were to sum up what so impressed me about Tetzlaff’s new Dvořák Concerto I would do so, I think, by using three words in particular. The first of these is Classicism. By this I don’t mean that Tetzlaff evinces a particularly marked degree of emotional restraint, still less any undue swiftness or rigidity of tempo; indeed, whereas Jonathan Woolf commends his earlier performance for its refusal to slow down when embarking on the second subject of the first movement, here Tetzlaff does just that – but to delightful effect. Rather, I am struck by his refusal to over-egg any emotional pudding, or to give any impression that he is dealing here with a Romantic warhorse. Instead, his performance has a formidable coherence, structural awareness and forward momentum which remind the listener that his predecessors and models included not just Bruch and Brahms, but also Mozart and Mendelssohn.

Secondly, Tetzlaff’s performance has a marked degree of delicacy. This is audible in the gentleness — indeed, tenderness — with which he often approaches the work’s various quiet passages, but also in such faster sections as the principal theme of the finale, which is sprung here with an infectiously light, delicate buoyancy. He is not lightweight in emotional terms, far from it; but his Dvořák is entirely free from the hint of ponderousness which this rather thickly-scored work can occasionally evince in lesser performances. For that we also have to thank the conductor, John Storgĺrds, whose contribution is throughout a central one. My third ‘key word’, indeed, is partnership: this is not the first time that Tetzlaff and Storgĺrds have worked together, and it shows. Moreover I was interested to be informed by the booklet note that Storgĺrds not only remains active as a violinist, but also still performs chamber music. The co-operation between soloist and orchestra on this disc often has the sense of intimate give-and-take one associates with chamber groups – sample for instance the delightful transition between the first and second movements, or the hushed central section of the latter.

The Dvořák Concerto acts as a kind of main course at the heart of this disc, preceded by the Suk Fantasy and followed by the Romance. Of the latter little needs to be said beyond that it is a winningly beautiful piece, beautifully played. The Suk work is perhaps more problematic, however. One feels that it is unlikely to move as many listeners as does Suk’s Asrael Symphony or to delight as many as does his lovely Serenade for Strings. In terms of its length it is almost substantial enough to be a concerto, but not quite; and, to me at least, its structure remains elusive. The most useful words I have read on this subject in fact occur in Oliver Fraenzke’s notes accompanying this recording: “its structure is very distinctive. It is in fact a single-movement work with innumerable changes of tempo, several of them slow, and apart from the fact that the piece begins and ends in fast tempo it cannot have a three-movement form read into it”. A mercurial work, in other words, which contains plenty of storm and stress — not least at the very beginning — but also has its fair share of quieter passions and lyrical gentleness. It is highly original and distinctive, sounding for the most part not remotely like Dvořák; and Tetzlaff and Storgĺrds seem very much to have its measure. Their reading packs a punch but, again, abounds in the requisite delicacy, and succeeds in sounding admirably natural.

Everything about this issue bespeaks quality: the performances above all, but also the recording, and indeed the booklet’s artwork. Its front cover has a black-and-white photo of Tetzlaff and Storgĺrds sitting together, and inside there are two further monochrome pictures of them involved in active collaboration, as well as one of the first page of the printed score of Suk’s Fantasy. The sense of two artists working unpretentiously together at the service of the composer is, then, conveyed both by what one hears and by what one sees. In marketing terms, a niggling doubt remained that Ondine might have made a slight strategic error in not including the very fine six-minute Mazurek in E minor, Op. 49, which Dvořák was working on at much the same time as the Violin Concerto. Its inclusion would have made this the only disc to contain the full concertante works for violin by both Dvořák and Suk. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Certainly the music-making is of a very high order indeed.

Nigel Harris

 

 




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