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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin Concerto in D major, op. 61 [39:59]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47 [31:09]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Robin Ticciati
rec. 2018, Großer Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks Berlin (Sibelius), Philharmonie Berlin (Beethoven)
ONDINE ODE1334-2 [71:22]

The indubitably great Christian Tetzlaff plays the Beethoven and Sibelius Violin Concertos on this disc: ‘Great’, slightly ‘difficult’ solitaires of the late classic and late romantic period, respectively. With Beethoven, it’s already his third recording; with Sibelius his second. Disarmingly, Tetzlaff actually explains his perceived need for (yet) another recording in the booklet’s interview. (As if he actually needed to justify himself: he doesn’t.) But really, the reason for a new recording should be evident in the listening. Is it?

Not quite after a first or even fifth listening. Granted, everything is played with the utmost tastefulness. Brilliantly, even, as one might, can, should expect of Christian Tetzlaff. But perhaps not quite as outstanding as we might equally expect of him. What this means, on first impression, is disappointment at the highest possible level. Out of character are merely two slightly lurched moments in the final movements of each concerto, where the German Symphony Orchestra Berlin (DSO Berlin) under Robin Ticciati seems to get somewhat ahead of itself. Elsewhere – at least in the Beethoven – the tempi are surprisingly modest.

If you focus sufficiently just on the violin part, meanwhile, little lightning bolts of superlative playing will strike you. The way Tetzlaff creates casual sparks in the Sibelius finale will put a bright smile on your face. And in Beethoven, too, there is an admirable mix of the willfully rugged and smooth, somnambulistic assuredness. Listen to it on headphones – and loud – to best get out these qualities. Another bonus is the enormously effective Beethoven/Schneiderhahn Op.61a cadenza that Tetzlaff employs (as he always does). But if the whole affair doesn’t quite jump off the page, it’s because of the indistinct, slightly pale accompaniment from Ticciati. He stays back where he could take on a much more active role. Compare this, for example, to what the young Andris Nelsons did on his recording with Arabella Steinbacher (Orfeo). Or the late Claudio Abbado on his last recording with Isabelle Faust (Harmonia Mundi). That’s active shaping. Ticciati sounds more like he’s trying to get out of the way. The whole thing has the air of a carefully planned geometric abstraction, rather than a sanguineous interpretation.

It doesn’t help that Tetzlaff’s previous recording with David Zinman and the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Arte Nova, MusicWeb review by by Evan Dickerson here) is outrageously good and very nicely paired with the two Romances for Violin and Orchestra. Similarly, the Sibelius recording with Thomas Dausgaard and the Danish NSO (Virgin/Erato, MusicWeb review by John Leeman here) is splendidly coupled with the other, often neglected works of Sibelius for violin and orchestra and just as splendidly played. And so, for an unequivocal recommendation, this recording would have to do something that Zehetmair/Brüggen or the aforementioned Faust/Abbado (to name but two) don’t quite do in Beethoven. I’m not sure it does. Ditto, as regards Sibelius, where this recording has Frank Peter Zimmermann, Hilary Hahn, Dmitry Sitkovetsky, Viktoria Mullova, and Leonidas Kavakos to content with. While it can stand up to these, it doesn’t make a convincing case for replacing any of them in our estimation or on our shelves.

What about wanting and getting specifically this combination of concertos? And why not. Turns out, there is surprisingly little convincing competition to be had here, at last. Great, but very much historic, is Ida Handel/Ančerl (Supraphon). Also historic but respectable are Oistrakh/Ehrling (EMI/Testament) and Heifetz/Hendl & Munch (RCA), Francescatti with Burno Walter,and Oistrakh (again) with Eugene Ormandy (both Sony). Naturally, the sound of any of these cannot compete with this splendidly recorded Ondine release. Neither can Kremer/Temirkanov (Melodiya, old and out of print). Wonderfully played but several universes removed in style are Zukerman/Barenboim (DG), where the former pours his syrup-thick gorgeous sound over both pieces, offering them in pristine sugar-lemon icing. This is where you’ll find that Tetzlaff’s character drawing in chalk and charcoal is far more up to date. Maybe worth a listen, after all.

Jens F. Laurson

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