IN: Reviews

An Evening with Thomas Zehetmair


The Stephen D. Bechtel Auditorium at the Cambridge home of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is by no means a standard concert venue. Primarily designed for symposia and speakers, the acoustical qualities of the atrium-like space have sometimes proven problematic for music. Not so, however, on the evening of February 22, when Thomas Zehetmair played music for unaccompanied violin. With the lone performer positioned at the center of the stage and with the medium-sized hall completely filled, the sound of the violin, its clarity and projection was remarkably good in every respect. *

The well-known Austrian chamber musician (Zehetmair Quartet), conductor (Artistic Partner with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra from 2010/11), and one of the technically and musically most brilliant violin soloists today, was in absolute top form. Hence, the audience gave him a well-deserved standing ovation after his presentation of a fascinating and challenging program that included, sandwiched between Johann Sebastian Bach, two contemporary pieces by Pierre Boulez and Heinz Holliger – the latter composed only a few months ago and specifically for Zehetmair, a tireless advocate of new music.

Anthèmes 1 by Boulez dates from 1991 and was at the time commissioned for the Menuhin Violin Competition in Paris. Quite idiomatically written for the violin, its effective use of glissandi, trills, pizzicati, and sharply contrasting dynamics creates a broad and varied spectrum of sound. Zehetmair’s keen sense of structural clarity rendered the seven sections of the approximately 10-minute work in beautifully coherent fashion.

Holliger’s Souvenir der Newcastle originated from a collaborative orchestral project last fall that involved Zehetmair as conductor and the Swiss composer as solo oboist. Zehetmair’s birthday happened to fall into the short period of collaboration, so Holliger surprised his colleague and friend with a charming piece of 2½-minute length that he had dashed off within a few hours. The little piece picks up on the opening motif of Schubert’s Sixth Symphony (part of the collaborative program); it apparently includes hidden references to the dedicatee’s name and notably reflects the extreme technical difficulties of Holliger’s fairly recent violin concerto, frequently performed and recorded by Zehetmair.

The two contemporary pieces, even taken together, are disproportionately short in comparison with Bach’s extended essays for solo violin that focus in exemplary fashion on the fundamental differences between the two types of multi-movement instrumental form prevailing in the baroque period: sonata and suite or partita. However, for the modern listener the extreme juxtaposition of very new and very old seems to work extremely well, much better and more illuminating than when Bach’s violin solos are combined with those of Reger, Ysaye, and others.

The first work of the evening was Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major in which Zehetmair concentrated on the melodic and expressive distinctions between the slow and fast movements. The second movement of 354 measures, the longest fugue Bach ever wrote, was a particularly radiant and transparent if illusionary presentation four-part polyphony based on a chorale theme. As concluding piece Partita no. 2 in d minor was chosen, probably in order to balance the Sonata’s oversize fugue with the Partita’s gigantic chaconne and its 64 variations on a recurring bass theme. At any rate, the configuration of delicately differentiated rhythmic patterns of the Allemande, Corrente, Sarabande, and Giga movements of the Partita was given much and appropriate attention by Zehetmair who, in this way, prepared himself as well as his audience for the finale. The expectations were fulfilled, for there followed a stunning performance and moving interpretation of the Ciacona.

In the light of the evening’s magisterial performance, this listener could not help but recall what the musician and critic Johann Friedrich Reichardt wrote in his 1805 review of the then freshly published first edition of Bach’s set of unaccompanied violin solos: “They may give the greatest example in any art form for a master’s ability to move with freedom and assurance, even in chains.”

* See related article here.

Christoph Wolff is Adams University Professor at Harvard University. Born and educated in Germany, he studied organ and historical keyboard instruments, musicology and art history at the Universities of Berlin, Erlangen, and Freiburg. His website is here.

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