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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Violin concerto in D, op.61 (1806) [41:01];
Romance no.1 in G, op. 40 (1803) [6:20];
Romance no.2 in F, op.50 (1805) [8:18]
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich/David Zinman.
rec. Tonhalle Zurich, 30-31 May 2005. DDD
BMG ARTE NOVA 82876 76994 2 [55:46]
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Menuhin/Philharmonia/Furtwängler (EMI)
Hahn/Baltimore Symphony Orchestra/Zinman (Sony)
Vengerov/London Symphony Orchestra/Rostropovich (EMI)

David Zinman’s series of Beethoven recordings with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich on Arte Nova has consistently attracted critical praise, of which more later. With a piano concerto cycle in progress, it’s good to see that Zinman and co are turning their attention to other works too. The triple concerto is already available on the continent, but so far as I know has yet to make a splash in the USA or UK.

This present recording of the violin concerto and two romances sticks very much to the interpretative path forged by previous recordings. If you are familiar with them you will have a good idea of what to expect. Blown away is the Romantic ‘dust’ that has gathered on these scores over the years, having become ingrained in the notes – as it were – through the traditions of performance. Zinman’s view, as captured in this recording, is worlds away from that of Furtwängler who encourages the Philharmonia at every turn to give the orchestral body weight, sonority and inevitability. It’s not as if Zinman takes a view that’s just at odds with those recorded several decades ago either. Vengerov and Rostropovich turn in a performance that in some respects is almost as indulgent in terms of tempo choices, yet does not quite convey the monumentality of the music to the same degree. As with Menuhin, I find Vengerov’s tone beyond criticism and his approach makes sense of the music’s architecture too.

So what of this Tetzlaff/Zinman recording? Gone is any sense of inevitability or predictability in the music-making. Instead, the orchestra are en masse on the edge of their seats, and one feels that they might be playing the music for the first time, even though you know they are not. Alertness to rhythm and litheness of orchestral line are key to this recording for the orchestra, and the soloist too, although this is not a performance that shies away from the dramatic extremities of the writing either. Timpani and brass are forwardly placed and the dryness of their impact readily brings to mind the sound achieved in many period instrument performances. Indeed this is not the only place where ‘period’ performances leave their mark on this reading.

It’s instructive as well to contrast it with Zinman’s earlier Baltimore recording with Hilary Hahn, which is a more wholly traditional view of the work. Some critics - in printed journals - I recall found her playing somewhat aloof [but not here]. One I read even went as far as to say ‘non-committal’, which I translate as ‘Hahn had no definite statements of her own to make about the work’. Whilst I would not go that far, I would agree that when placed alongside Menuhin, Vengerov and indeed Tetzlaff, Hahn maybe does not delve as deeply into the notes. But her playing never fails to be musical, and having been recorded at a tender age it is possible she approached it too early on disc; how I would like to hear a reading from her now! Zinman opts for broader tempi almost without exception and greater body to the orchestral tone too.

An artist of reputation in the concert hall and on record, I have in live performances of Beethoven occasionally found Tetzlaff a bit rough-toned to be ideal. Here he leaves the feeling of having lived with the music for a while before deciding to react against certain performance traditions, most prominently in the choice of cadenzas he plays. Gone are the traditionally performed ones by Fritz Kreisler. In their place are Tetzlaff’s violin transcriptions of Beethoven cadenzas written for the piano arrangement of the concerto. For many they may take some getting used to within the overall context of the work, but Tetzlaff’s advocacy of them is spirited and thematically they are well suited. On the whole there is little rough tone here, except at the beginning of the first movement cadenza, where one feels it is intended. Aside from these points his reading is notable for the joyfulness he brings to the recording – an aim that his contribution to the brief but useful booklet note underlines.

There can be no doubting that Tetzlaff’s vision to ‘review the Beethoven we know’ is shared by Zinman. I find that the outer movements have a notable degree of spring in the rhythms, whilst the middle adagio amply captures a sense of intimacy in the confidences shared not only between soloist and orchestra, but players and listener too. This aspect was not quite so notable in the Hahn/Zinman recording, even taking account of its slightly broader tempi.

Of the Romances, the only comparable version already mentioned is that presented by Vengerov, and I find his performances to be perfectly genial – indeed, I wish he brought more often a touch of the tautness of vision he finds in them to his reading of the concerto. Tetzlaff sees the Romances as cut from the same cloth as the concerto, and plays them in the same spirit, although the readings they receive are not as likely to change your view of Beethoven to the extent that the rendition of the concerto might.

Having previously mentioned period instrument performances, it was not so long ago that Norrington et al supposedly ‘revolutionised’ the way we heard Beethoven on disc. Whilst then I did not find the musical manner of authenticists always tasteful, now I find that many of their recordings have aged rather badly. A glance at previous reviews of Zinman’s Beethoven recordings reveals a tendency amongst critics to overstatement along the lines lavished on the authentic movement. One even goes so far as to state, "Zinman is Beethoven" (not my italics). Well, Beethoven and Zinman are their own selves – and one has been around for a lot longer than the other. How long Zinman’s currently in vogue view of Beethoven remains in common circulation has still yet to be seen, but whilst it does, it provides an alternative to more traditional interpretations and is worthy of more than one audition. That said, it’s to Furtwängler and Menuhin that I will continue to return most often.

Evan Dickerson

Reviews of the other Tonhalle Zurich / Zinman Beethoven recordings:

Complete overtures:
Complete symphonies:
Missa Solemnis:
Further listening - Christian Tetzlaff:

Artur Schnabel violin sonatas: Arte Nova 74321 27798


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