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Concert Review: Beethoven Outshines Schoenberg

Christian Tetzlaff, Bookended by Grosse Fugue, Delights With Violin

By Tanya Goldhaber

Beethoven and Schoenberg

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by James Levine

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff

Symphony Hall

Nov. 4, 2006

It is rare to hear the same piece played twice in one concert, but such was the case in Saturday’s Boston Symphony performance. The BSO is in the middle of a Beethoven/Schoenberg cycle, designed to compare and contrast Beethoven and Schoenberg as composers and also to give more exposure to Schoenberg, whose works tend to be sparingly performed. The program was mostly Beethoven, consisting of the Beethoven and Schoenberg Violin Concertos performed by renowned violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and paired on both ends of the program with a performance of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, Op. 133. The purpose of the dual performance of the Fugue was to provide contrast to one of Beethoven’s earlier works (the Violin Concerto) in the first half of the program, and then to contrast the composition style of Schoenberg in the second half.

The first performance of the Grosse Fugue seemed slightly unstable. Although there were no obvious orchestral errors, the initial performance lacked the flare and passion so common for the BSO, as the musicians seemed to be focused mainly on staying together through the labyrinth of the piece. The work itself is very complex, and was originally the finale to Beethoven’s B-flat Quartet. Preparing and performing this piece with four musicians — not to mention giving an inspiring delivery — with only four musicians would be exceedingly difficult. Performing the work with an entire string orchestra is much more difficult, so it is not surprising that the BSO seemed slightly cautious and restrained during the initial performance. The second performance, as the last work on the program, was much better, and also provided much-needed relief from the Schoenberg Concert.

Next, I offer a rave review of Christian Tetzlaff’s performance. Tetzlaff, a violinist, is not as much of a household name as perhaps Yo-Yo Ma or Itzhak Perlman, but nonetheless is a virtuoso who has garnered a significant amount of professional acclaim and has been referred to as one of the most important violinists of the decade.

The Beethoven Violin Concerto was his debut work, performed first when he was fourteen. As a result, his performance was very personal and warm, which is exceedingly important in a work like the Beethoven Concerto. This particular concerto is difficult not so much because of its technical challenges, but because the violin is completely exposed at every moment of the piece and utter perfection is needed in order to give an effective and moving performance. While Tetzlaff was not perfect, dropping the occasional note or hitting a few octaves slightly out of tune, his performance absolutely contained the technical skill required. The Beethoven concerto, if performed well, should also send chills up the listener’s spine, which this performance often did.

There were a few negatives to the performance, however. Tetzlaff has succumbed to one of the bad habits of many soloists: excessive motion. It seems as though a head bob, backbend, or side step accompanied every change of notes or phrases. While this translates to emotional playing for those who listen with their eyes, for those who do not, the excessive bouncing was more distracting than anything. The Beethoven Violin Concerto also requires more delicacy in performance than perhaps any other major concerto in the repertoire. The first movement at times felt a bit harsh, as if the piece were an expensive glass vase that Tetzlaff was treating slightly carelessly.

Tetzlaff also wrote his own cadenza for the piece, a risky move considering that the Kreisler and Joachim cadenzas are nearly universally performed and have become much-loved parts of the piece. Tetzlaff’s cadenza was a very nice interlude, although I am not entirely sure what most of it had to do with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Although the cadenza occasionally wandered back to a familiar theme, most of it only vaguely referenced the first movement. That aside, the performance was moving, emotional, and technically sound. The absolute highlight of Tetzlaff’s performance, however, was the third movement of the Beethoven. Every complaint that could be found about the first two movements was inapplicable to the performance of the third. Tetzlaff seemed to relax a bit as well, making for a truly inspiring performance.

To be brief: I have never liked Schoenberg, and even Christian Tetzlaff could not change that. There are no apparent melodic lines, no consonant harmonies, and no dissonances that resolve to anything other than worse dissonances. That said, the Violin Concerto is very technically challenging, and I’m sure that Tetzlaff did as good of a job with it as could be expected.

To that end, the final performance of the Grosse Fugue was effective, as it brought a sense of relief that could only be attained by once again hearing beautiful music.