Brahms Violin Concerto; Schumann Symphony No 4

It’s a brave man indeed who both plays and conducts the Brahms Concerto

Rob Cowan

Brahms Violin Concerto; Schumann Symphony No 4

  • Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
  • Symphony No. 4

Having the soloist both play and conduct the Beethoven Violin Concerto is feasible, due mainly to the score’s structural simplicity and textual economy. But when it comes to the busier Brahms Concerto, I have my doubts. Certainly the evidence here is only partially convincing. It’s not that the Northern Sinfonia fall short in any way: their playing is in the main smooth and well drilled. The opening tutti runs to plan but has no real gravitas; the build-up to the solo entry lacks tension and Zehetmair’s first statement sounds more excitable than exciting. One has the invariable feeling of an orchestra efficiently in tow rather than engaging or responding. All this is made more conspicuous by the stark stylistic contrast between Zehetmair’s nervy, febrile playing, with its multicoloured gestures and occasionally self-conscious gear-changes, and a keen but relatively bland-sounding orchestra. I found it an interesting but uncomfortable listen, the sort that would have pleased me more as a concert experience. Too often the performance sounds rushed, the soloist, although imaginative and frequently very expressive, more than a little harassed.

The original version of Schumann’s Fourth emerges as lithe and argumentative if at times somewhat mannered, the string bands in the first movement – with spatially divided violin desks – vividly captured, though here and in parts of the Scherzo and finale some ritardandi are a trifle overdone. This is a very spontaneous-sounding performance: listen carefully and you’ll pick up Zehetmair’s quiet vocal interjections, especially in passages where the tension starts to mount. The finale comes off particularly well, with a bracing basic tempo, impressive keenness of attack and watertight inter-desk dialogue. Zehetmair’s nearest rival (in this edition) is Thomas Dausgaard’s Swedish Chamber Orchestra recording (BIS, 5/07), an even more forthright, albeit less fussy rendition, less closely recorded. I prefer it overall but Zehetmair and his players nonetheless make a good case for returning to the original score.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014