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Violinist Christian Tetzlaff brings splendid Bartók to Davies Symphony Hall

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Last night in Davies Symphony Hall Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) returned to the podium of the San Francisco Symphony with a relatively conventional overture-concerto-symphony program. However, the concerto, Béla Bartók’s second violin concerto, was anything but conventional; and the interpretation of the solo part by Christian Tetzlaff could not have been more up to the task. For his part, MTT provided a first-rate introduction in his “overture” selection of “Lemminkäinen’s Return,” the final movement of Jean Sibelius’ Opus 22 suite of tone poems based on the Lemminkäinen poems from the Finnish epic Kalevala.

Sibelius always had a particular gift for musical illustration in his tone poems. However, what distinguishes “Lemminkäinen’s Return” is not so much the “action” of the plot as the way in which the composer captured the act of bardic narration. The entire orchestra (and it is a full one) becomes the voice of the bard, giving an almost breathless account of the final stages in the tale of this particular hero. One is immediately seized by the vocal rhythm of narration, reinforced by the rapidity with which that voice shuttles from one set of instrumental resources to another. Regardless of cultural background, the listener is absorbed into the dynamics of narration, even if the narrative itself is not spelled out in labored detail.

In this context the Bartók concerto then emerged as bringing a different voice into a similar context. This is not to suggest that the solo line for the violin is telling a tale, but the act of engagement with the listener is not that different in substance from that of the bard Sibelius had evoked, This time, however, the voice draws upon Hungarian idioms, many of which can be traced back to the songs that Bartók encountered in his ethnomusicological field work. Nevertheless, this is very much concert music, and highly demanding at that. The cadenza work in the first movement demands that the violinist jump through some rather intimidating fiery hoops, and what may well have been most impressive about last night’s performance was the inner calm with which Tetzlaff negotiated the many technical demands that Bartók imposed, often with the roaring encouragement of the full orchestral ensemble.

Equally impressive, however, was Tetzlaff’s command of soft dynamics. This had been a critical element in his Bach performance this past Sunday evening, but the dynamic range for the Bartók was even more extreme. Thus, Tetzlaff could bring his instrumental voice all the way down to the threshold of audibility. Yet there was a sharp edge to his sonorities through which the listener could grasp every note. Like Sibelius’ evocation of the bardic voice, this concerto was music that kept you on the edge of your seat, and Tetzlaff never short-changed the intensity of Bartók’s rhetoric.

Such a coupling of “overture” and concerto imposed demanding expectations for the symphony. Sadly, those expectations were not satisfied. The symphony was Johannes Brahms’ Opus 98 in E minor, the last of his four symphonies. This music is rich in a thematic vocabulary that unfolds from an almost Spartan foundation of materials. In the right hands the journey through this symphony’s four movements explores a broad scope of inventiveness framed in a lush rhetoric of expression.

Unfortunately, last night’s interpretation never achieved the heights of Brahms conception of this symphony. Much of the difficulty may have arisen from MTT’s intense focus on the shaping of individual phrases at the very beginning of the first movement. Unfortunately, all of that attentiveness to individual trees seemed to indicate a lack of awareness of the entire forest. Each movement has its own characteristic climax; but, in last night’s reading, each of those four climaxes lapsed by as just another event. The result was that Brahms was unduly overshadowed by the significantly more attentive readings of the two compositions that preceded the intermission.

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