By any measure, the March 3 Boston Symphony Orchestra concert was a miracle. The announcement of James Levine’s withdrawal from conducting all programs for the rest of the season came on Tuesday, March 1, and by March 3 his appointee, Brazilian Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger was at the ready in good spirits. Fortunately, the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff did not withdraw, because he was soloist in all three works on the program, which, contrary to next week, remained as planned: Mozart’s Rondo in C major, K. 373, Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s new Violin Concerto, the BSO’s only commission this year, and Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2.
Tetzlaff, who will be forty-five in April, was born in Hamburg, made his debut as a violinist at the age of fourteen, and after the Musikhochschule in Lübeck, came to Cincinnati, Levine’s home town, to study with the German violinist and Levine’s close friend, Walter Levin. Thereafter he became an extraordinarily active soloist throughout the world. He has performed with the BSO ten times since 1990, thrice under Levine since 2006, so he is well-known to Boston audiences—this one seemed delighted to welcome him back, with several well-deserved standing ovations. Just for the record, since 2002 he has been playing a violin by the German violin maker, Peter Greiner, modeled on a Guarneri del Gesú, in preference to his earlier Stradivarius. He and his sister formed the Tetzlaff Quartet (touring the U.S. in April), all but one of whom play Greiner instruments.
Somewhat less than miraculous was the opening tasty appetizer, Mozart’s Rondo, scored for violin and small orchestra (two oboes, two horns, and strings). Summoned to Vienna, by his employer, the Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg, Mozart finished the work in April, 1781 and it was performed within the week at the residence of Prince Rudolf, the Archbishop’s father. Mozart was also performing his new Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, K. 373a, there that night when he would rather have been playing for the Emperor at a different residence. Furious at being treated like a servant, Mozart broke with the Archbishop in June and remained as a free-lancer in Vienna until his death in 1791. This is a charming piece, full of courtly gaiety, but Tetzlaff and Lehninger seemed to have had a different idea of the tempo — Tetzlaff’s spirited, and Leninger’s stately, which they never quite resolved. Otherwise the performance was radiant as only the BSO strings can project. (Tetzlaff has performed this once before with the BSO at Tanglewood in 2005 under David Robertson, but these are the only appearances of this work in the BSO’s repertoire.)
The performance of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s new Violin Concerto more than made up for the earlier disjunction. His music has been rarely performed by this orchestra, starting with a non-performance of his Tragoedia scheduled for December 4, 1970, but cancelled by Michael Tilson Thomas as “not yet ready to go as well as he thought it should,” Michael Steinberg reported. Only his Shadow of the Night (2001) has been performed here under Christoph von Dohnányi in 2005, while he was in residence at Harvard University. He has written only two other works for solo instrument and orchestra: Antiphonies (piano, 1992), and The Cry of Anubis (tuba, 1994). The simply titled Concerto begins with an intense, triple fortissimo solo violin flourish of intervals going up to a high D, held for a while against a tri-tone-producing A-flat below, which eventually falls down to B-flat below middle C, before starting to scratch away at some lower notes. But meanwhile a flute soloist has embarked on a similar flourish at pianissimo<forte>pianissimo, while strings played very soft, sustained notes, thus producing the ethereal colors that one way or another obtained throughout. There were in fact five pylons that established new beginnings: five duets between the solo violin and solo flute, piccolo, cello, oboe, and bassoon, accompanied by a softly twittering chorus of instruments. The solo cello, performed by Martha Babcock, was particularly affecting. The three percussionists, playing a large battery of fifteen instruments, and low brass, especially the tuba, also took their turns in providing solo texture, while Tetzlaff played almost constantly in a very difficult role, absolutely dancing with the notes that were formed in gestures rather than phrases throughout. This was a brilliant essay in orchestral color, brilliantly performed. At the end both Tetzlaff and the orchestra members seemed to be congratulating each other, and Birtwistle appeared to be equally pleased on stage.
Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 was written in Budapest for the violinist Zoltán Székely between August, 1937 and December, 1938 while the composer was increasingly worried about the changing political situation in Germany and Austria. Already he was negotiating with Boosey & Hawkes (London) to become his publisher instead of Universal Edition (Vienna), and refusing to perform as a pianist in Germany. The first movement of Bartók’s Violin Concerto, Allegro non troppo, is nonetheless spirited and animated—altogether bright and shining—and alternates fast and slow passages. The harp is a prominent sound in various moods throughout, and Jessica Zhou rose to the occasion with sensitivity to each one. Tetzlaff’s cadenza was performed with pure fire. The second movement (Andante tranquillo) is a set of variations in which the soloist plays with various groups of instruments in turn, and the third (Allegro molto) runs by in a rollicking three-quarter time. There is a twelve-note “row” theme found in the outer movements, which, though never numbered, was reported by Yehudi Menuhin to be Bartók’s proof to Schoenberg that a composer can use this scheme and yet retain tonality. This work, like others of this period, is also less influenced by his researches into Hungarian folk idioms. Lehninger’s conducting, which before had comprised chiefly outlining time patterns during the first two pieces, finally emerged into a looser style in which his body was fully engaged.
The juxtaposition of the Birtwistle and the Bartók was amazingly salutary, in spite of the years separating their composition. The dissonances set forth in the Birtwistle were somehow both enhanced and resolved in the Bartók. Tetzlaff’s performance throughout, especially given the circumstances, was the truly miraculous element in this concert, not soon to be forgotten by either the orchestra members, who were finally all smiles, and the audience.