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A Day at the Races

New York
Carnegie Hall
05/20/2012 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio in E Major, K. 261
Felix Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Arnold Schoenberg: Violin Concerto, Op. 36

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
The MET Orchestra, David Robertson (conductor)

C. Tetzlaff (© Alexandra Vosding)

Christian Tetzlaff seemed single-minded in his demanding program with the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. His sole direction seemed to push and pull tempos and gestures as far apart as possible. The result was variously successful, robbing the Mozart and Mendelssohn works on the program of charm and nuance, but imbuing the Schoenberg concerto with vehemence and conviction.

Opening with the Mozart Adagio set a somewhat serene mood. Tetzlaff has a gorgeous tone in lyrical passagework and ladled on generous portions of nonchalant rubato that convinced throughout. Even in this truffle, however, one sensed a bit of tension between soloist and conductor, with Robertson and the orchestra failing to be in perfect rhythmic sync with Tetzlaff. Robertson's introductory tempo was clearly a notch or two slow for Tetzlaff, and this initiated an awkward series of gear shifts that never derailed the piece, but made it sound more difficult to coordinate than it really is.

This problem was more prevalent in the Mendelssohn, to the point of consternation for this listener. In the outer movements, Tetzlaff was hell-bent on breaking world records for speed. This was playing of truly olympian athleticism, but at what cost? Surely this piece no longer poses a technical hurdle for a violinist of this stature, but is the only new interpretive bent available one of shear speed? What was even more alarming were the jolting gear shifts in the first movement. For the second subject, Tetzlaff took the composer's tranquillo marking to a new extreme, bringing the tempo almost to a halt. This created an almost generic dynamic to the first movement: lyric passages were only played extremely slowly and with ample rubato and portamento; quick passagework was only played as fast as possible with no hesitance on important pitches, no room for interpretive gradation. There was no in between.

The Andante was more satisfactory, with a return to the style of playing that marked the opening Mozart Adagio. Here the tempo was, predictably, slightly slower than usual, but finally soloist and ensemble clicked. Unsurprisingly, the finale slammed on the gas pedal, with a tempo that out-Heifetzed Heifetz. Throughout, the sixteenth-note passagework became merely arm and finger motions and bow-on-string friction sounds, instead of musical lines. Indeed, I began focusing more on the attempts at careful playing in the orchestra, searching for the cheer and charm of the work. The all-too-brief woodwind statement of the main theme towards the end was a highlight: here was phrasing and balance. Naturally, Tetzlaff's interpretation electrified much of the audience, who leapt to their feet.

Despite attempts in the program book to convince us that Schoenberg's essay in the genre consists merely of "extensions of the language of Brahms," it is a tough piece for performers and audience alike. One wonders if Schoenberg had his tongue in his cheek in stating that he was "delighted to add another 'unplayable' work to the repertoire." If not, he surely hadn't heard a violinist of Tetzlaff's ability. Louis Krasner, who premiered the work and whose various live performances are available on recording, simply doesn't hold a candle to this level of playing. Indeed, in the current era of super-virtuosos, this tough nut of a concerto seems to be "catching on" - witness not only Tetzlaff's championing of the work here, but Hilary Hahn's recent major-label recording.

Tetzlaff, Robertson and the augmented MET Orchestra joined forces impeccably throughout the 30-minute work. This was a blistering performance, one that at first had me thinking Tetzlaff had returned as a new violinist after intermission but, as the work progressed, realizing that he was up to the same tricks as he was in the Mendelssohn. The difference is that those tricks, which threatened to shatter Mendelssohn's concerto into a thousand Expressionist pieces, suited the Schoenberg to a T. The anguished, impassioned moans of the newly-expatriated composer can be heart-wrenching in the right hands, and Tetlzaff's fearlessness in digging into the challenging solo part was alternately awe-inspiring, horrifying and tender. The opening melody, rhythmically limping and commentated on by the groaning orchestra, was lush, rich and earthy. From there, figuration in the solo and orchestra parts dives in and out of bariolage, awkward arpeggiated multiple stops, expansive leaps to frozen harmonics, and further lyrical roulades, often in the extreme ranges of the instrument. Teztlaff mastered it all. Likewise, the finale let us hear extended passages for the orchestra alone and bask in the glory of its splendid brass players.

Despite this high level of advocacy, the work will always be the Berg concerto's bridesmaid. Schoenberg seems to work against the nature of the violin, Berg with it, and the abrupt ending of the Schoenberg simply lacks the emotional catharsis of the Berg-Bach chorale that ends that work. Even so, from the intensity of the audience's attention, the musicians on stage were communicating volumes of feeling, even if in a foreign language.

Sadly, even Robertson apologized for the Schoenberg, thanking us for "sitting through it" before joining Tetzlaff for an encore, Mozart's chipper Rondo in C, K. 373. The pinpoint precision of the Schoenberg seemed to suddenly vanish: one only had to hear the witty final two notes, sloppily skewed between soloist and orchestra, to realize that conductor and soloist were no longer on the same page.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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