Mendelssohn’s violin concerto sent them wild

February 12, 2015 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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Explosive violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, ran away with the show in the first of this year’s Sydney Symphony APT Master Series concerts last night, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

Christian Tetzlaff     Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi

Christian Tetzlaff Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi

Playing the most popular of all violin concertos, the Mendelssohn, Tetzlaff was a sound and sight sensation that sent both the audience and orchestra into wild applause when he’d finished. That’s not to say everybody agreed with the musicality of the interpretation. Those who like pedal to the metal speed loved it as did those who like to crane forward to follow a pianissimo passage down to near silence. But nobody could deny the excitement generated throughout the three movements of this concerto. It was simply electrifying, made all the more so by Tetzaff’s body movements, which would have been at home on a rock concert stage. I’m not knocking them, incidentally. His choreography amplified the passion.

There was a story doing the rounds after the concert that Hamburg born Tetzlaff’s flight to Sydney had been delayed, giving him only one brief rehearsal with the SSO before the performance. That may have explained why the orchestra sometimes struggled to keep pace with him. Subsequent performances will probably mesh a little better.

The concerto was the final offering in the concert, having been preceded by Schumann’s first two Symphonies. That in itself was unusual. Programmers seem to like to place a concerto immediately before interval, maybe to cut down on hero-worship and remind audiences that they’d come principally to hear an orchestra. In this case, the crowd left with the feeling that they’d been fired from a musical slingshot.

The placement of orchestral players was unusual too. For all three works the six double basses were at the left rear rather than right, the tympani had come down to the ground floor rather than being one step up. And I spared a thought for the tall man sitting on a high chair on the far right when the second work (the Schumann 1st symphony) was being performed. I wondered what he was doing there until he revealed himself as the triangle player. He only got to jangle a few times in the first movement and then had to sit out the rest looking attentive.

Conductor David Robertson is a declared fan of Schumann’s four symphonies and decided to shoehorn them into two February concerts, two symphonies apiece. At the Master Series concert he presented numbers one and two, although not in that order – but then they were not strictly written in that order anyway.

Robert Schumann built his hard-won reputation on romantic piano music and songs, but his wife, the beautiful and much admired Clara, encouraged him to mix it with the popular symphonists of the day: Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart and Brahms – among others. Thus his symphonies have a foot in both the classical and romantic period camps. Early detractors complained about his orchestral structure but nowadays we are much more inclined to simply sit and listen to the music. As such, there is much to enjoy.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Fraser Beath McEwing

Although my preference had always been for the second symphony ahead   the first, the SSO performances reversed this. Beginning the concert, the second got away to a less than confident start, especially among the usually rock sold brass. The second movement scherzo took off like a fire truck and blurred what should have been precise, delicate playing. The third movement, a great favourite of mine, and generally regarded as Schumann’s finest orchestral slow movement, lacked the romantic richness I expected.

When the orchestra returned after interval and a good cuppa, it attacked Schumann’s first symphony (The Spring) with invigorated confidence and shape. The playing exhibited everything I had been looking for earlier, sounding as though the orchestra loved playing it.

I’ve often grizzled about audiences applauding between movements but David Robertson doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, during Schumann’s d Symphony No. 2 (the first to be played, just to be confusing) he acknowledged a schprinkleklap with a smile and a comment: “I like that.” So maybe I should pull my head in. But you still won’t find me applauding between movements.

Christian Tetzlaff is an artist in residence at the world-renowned Berlin Philharmonic.

And a word from conductor David Robertson:


Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.


One Response to “Mendelssohn’s violin concerto sent them wild”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Wish I was there……I was , however, in November in Berlin when Neeme Iarvi conducted Berlin Statskapelle with Schumann’s first when that vivacious start was , let’s say, rushed into confusion. After the concert I ran into a member of the orchestra who said the same, adding that they made up for the rest of it. Next to me, Frau Waldmann ( nee Miles ) had words with me admonishing me that I was somehow too eager to criticise. Imagine !!!
    Back in Bucharest, Romania’s best, Tomescu, related to Australia’s well known painter, Aida of the same family, did the same Mendelssohn 1st violin concerto in a most gentle, romantic manner. Still, more suppressed , inner explosions, somehow mellowed by the rich melodic character. He is playing I think, an Amatti; nothing at all to criticise. I can very well live with it.

    Did you guys know that Felix’s father, Abraham, the very son of Rabbi Moses, asked Felix sometime in early 1830s to abandon his Mendelssohn name altogether and use only the newly added ( 1822) Bartoldi and Felix refused !
    I named my own Felix after him.

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