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Individual Triumphs in Beethoven and Bartók

Jones Hall
05/08/2009 -  & May 9, 10
Ludwig van Beethoven: Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43 – Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Houston Symphony Orchestra, Hans Graf (conductor)

Christian Tetzlaff (© Alexandra Vosding)

The theme of this offering from the Houston Symphony seemed to be the triumph of the individual. In both the concertos, flashes of soloistic genius were ever-present, but the management from the podium failed to create the synergy that would have turned a very good performance into an exceptional one.

Hans Graf opened the night with the poor stepsister of Beethoven overtures, that from The Creatures of Prometheus. The program book hit the nail on the head in describing the piece as “thematically uncomplicated”, and perhaps Graf juxtaposed this with the violin concerto for precisely that nature. Both are borne out of minimal material but reach different heights. The overture can certainly be an electrifying curtain-raiser, but Graf failed to successfully switch gears from the Adagio introduction, superbly rendered, to the Allegro molto con brio. The strings didn’t seem to catch Graf’s swift tempo immediately, and it wasn’t until the first tutti that things really came together. From that point on, the piece essentially plays itself, and the orchestra made the most of it, driving the energy forward with punchy sforzandos on the many syncopated rhythms.

Christian Tetzlaff was a gutsy, entrancing soloist in the Beethoven concerto. With superb control over his instrument, he drew the entire audience in with exceptionally exaggerated soft playing that never lost an ounce of purity in intonation or differentiation in articulation. His violin was an extension of his body, and his conception of the piece was dramatic, edgy and uncompromising. While certainly not run of the mill, the performance was so intuitive and Tetzlaff’s physical gestures so organic that a conductor seemed hardly needed to make the dialog between soloist and orchestra work. Unfortunately, the requisite symbiosis was, for the most part, lacking.

In the first movement, Tetzlaff had a much more flexible conception of tempo than Graf seemed willing to allow and this caused noticeable coordination problems. Likewise, Tetzlaff’s extreme dynamic contrasts weren’t matched by Graf, who seemed to be holding the orchestra back in loud passages. Somehow, the end result was an episodic sounding first movement in a work that is typically lauded for its organic integration. Tetzlaff plays his own version of the cadenza from Beethoven’s piano and orchestra reworking of the piece, which added yet another level of unity to the movement. The Larghetto and finale found the two working together more successfully, with Tetzlaff continuing to dazzle and Graf finally seeming to catch on to this extreme type of interpretation. The Largo from Bach’s third solo sonata served as an encore and might have seemed a gratuitous plug for Tetzlaff’s hot-off-the-press recording of the sonatas and partitas had it not been a rendition of such crystalline finesse.

After the intermission, Graf led an idiosyncratic performance of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. There was a lack of mystery from the very outset of the work, and an excessive rallentando before the final return of the first movement’s main theme didn’t convince. The third movement Elegy was too slow to be Andante, non troppo (though the tempo did allow us to enjoy Allison Garza’s silken piccolo solos a bit longer). Likewise, the woodwind opening of the fourth movement was fussily phrased instead of levelheaded, which made the famous “interruption” midway through the movement sound less cheeky than it should. Despite these few unconvincing mannerisms from the podium, the orchestra played with dazzling virtuosity, the brass thrilling in the finale.

If anything, the concert provoked thought about what makes one performer’s risk-taking seem so “right” and another’s fail to come across. While this is certainly a matter of taste, the majority of the audience seemed in agreement. The Bartók, whose ending typically causes an outburst of applause, received a generous but measured ovation, while Tetzlaff’s playing in the concerto brought the crowd immediately to its feet.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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