Berg Brahms Violin Concertos Tetzlaff Ondine ODE1410-2

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin concerto in D major, Op 77 (1879)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Violin concerto ‘To the memory of an angel’ (1935)
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Robin Ticciati
rec. 2021, Studio Nalepastrasse Berlin (Berg) and March 2022 at Philharmonie Berlin (Brahms – live recording)
ONDINE ODE1410-2 [63]

This is Christian Tetzlaff’s second recording of the Brahms concerto. He made his first over fifteen years ago; I haven’t heard this but it was given a rather cool reception by Jonathan Woolf (review). The coupling for that earlier recording was the Hungarian Concerto by Brahms’s friend the violinist Joseph Joachim, who, in the earlier part of his life at least, also composed. However, his concerto, though highly esteemed by Donald Tovey, has never joined the general repertoire and this might be another reason for Tetzlaff wanting to couple his new version of the Brahms with something indubitably major. This is his first recording of the Berg, though he did make a recording of the Berg Chamber Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida as his partner (review). Furthermore, he had recently made a successful coupling of the Beethoven and Sibelius concertos with this same orchestra and conductor (review), and it is not surprising that they should want to renew their partnership.

It is with the orchestra and conductor that I want to start. Robin Ticciati is thoroughly steeped in the Brahms idiom, having made a successful set of the symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that attracted a good deal of praise (review). He has followed Charles Mackerras in using rather smaller numbers of strings than has become customary, closer to what Brahms himself was used to, and the result is a different balance between wind and strings and a Brahms lighter on his feet than in older approaches. However, there is no sacrifice of warmth or blend, and I felt immediately on hearing the opening tutti of the Brahms concerto that I was in safe hands. This continued, particularly when we hear the woodwind choir without the strings, beautifully balanced, expressive and moving. The oboe solo in the second movement of the Brahms is particularly fine.

I felt the same about the orchestral part in the Berg, though I am not aware of Ticciati having recorded him before. This is scored for a larger orchestra, including a saxophone incidentally, and the texture is complex, as it always is in Berg. Here I admired Ticcati’s ability, aided by the marks Berg put in the score, to distinguish the leading lines and to promote clarity without losing force when it was needed. Newcomers to this score need not worry about the serial idiom Berg uses: the work is basically late romantic, almost as much so as Richard Strauss, though with a nervous energy which Strauss rarely showed.

As for Tetzlaff himself, this is a master violinist at the height of his powers, He himself wrote the very informative sleevenote, from which we learn that he has been playing both concertos for forty years. He considers that both works concern extreme states of the human soul and his playing demonstrates the range of emotion that each work requires. Needless to say, he is wholly in command of the technical demands of each work, and the double stopping, rapid runs and passages at the top of the register pose no terrors for him. Furthermore, he does not play or behave like a prima donna and he regards the orchestra as a partner, not as an accompanist. In the Brahms he plays the Joachim cadenza.

I had the odd experience in listening to this recording that each work seemed shorter than I had remembered, so enthralled I was by the playing. In the Brahms, which I have known since childhood, it all seemed fresh and exciting, while the Berg was deeply moving. The passage towards the end, where Berg introduces the Bach chorale, representing some external consolation for the death of Manon Gropius at the age of eighteen, in whose memory the concerto was written, did not seem jarring, as Boulez, for one, thought it was, but completely fitting and appropriate. And the close, where we hear Manon’s soul being taken up to heaven, moved me to tears, as it always does.

The Brahms is a live recording, though one would not guess this, as there is no applause included. The Berg is a studio recording. The Berg was recorded at a slightly lower level than the Brahms, but a touch on the volume control remedied that. The balance between soloists and orchestra is good, with only minimal necessary spotlighting. You can even hear the harp when you need to.

There are of course, many recordings of both works. However, one can only warmly welcome a newcomer of such quality. I am writing this at the beginning of January but I am sure this will be one of my recordings of the year. Warmly recommended.

Stephen Barber

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