Berg Brahms Violin Concertos Tetzlaff Ondine ODE1410-2

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 77 (1878)
Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ (1935)
Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Robin Ticciati
rec. 2021, Funkhaus Nalepastraße, Berlin (Berg); live, March 2022, Philharmonie, Berlin (Brahms)
Ondine ODE 1410-2 [63]

Celebrated violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff has made a substantial number of recordings in his career. His latest release couples the Brahms Violin Concerto with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto ‘To the Memory of an Angel’ and maintains his relationship with the Helsinki-based record label Ondine, which began in 2011. 

I have seen him in live performance on a couple of occasions. He doesn’t employ histrionics; he just gets on with the job providing outstanding performances of sincerity, quiet assurance and strength of purpose. He plays not just the war horses of the violin concerto repertoire but also lesser-known works; for instance, the Joseph Joachim Violin Concerto No 2, Op 11; Josef Suk Fantasy in G minor, Op 24 and Kurt Weill Violin Concerto, Op 12, and also contemporary composers such as Stuart MacRae and Jörg Widmann. In addition to giving orchestral concerts, Tetzlaff is a passionate chamber musician, playing mainly in duos, trios and in the Tetzlaff Quartet with his sister, Tanja. He has been playing both the Brahms and Berg concerto for over forty years, notching up in excess of three hundred performances. 

The Brahms Violin Concerto was written in 1878 largely in the Austrian lakeside resort of Pörtschach am Wörthersee. Providing expert guidance was Brahms’ friend the eminent violinist Joachim, the dedicatee, who premiered it on New Year’s Day in 1879 in Leipzig. It is one of the most glorious of all the concertos, an almost perfect creation of classical form and a mainstay of the repertoire, full of deep emotional content, sometimes anguished and sometimes memorable lyrical, entirely deserving of its accolades. 

This is a compelling performance that is both committed and sincere. With instinctive command, Tetzlaff maintains a sense of nobility throughout. In the lengthy opening movement Allegro non troppo, he gives the singing melodies a beautiful, sweet quality which contrasts splendidly with the stormy episodes and in the Adagio the sense of intense yearning he creates is captivating. Marked Allegro giocoso, ma non troppo vivace, the finale with its hints of a Gypsy dance, probably suggests Joachim’s Hungarian heritage and is both uplifting and buoyant.

Any new recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto has to compete with the substantial number of outstanding accounts in a crowded market. My choices have altered in ranking since I last reviewed a recording of it some ten years ago. I favour two digital recordings: first, the 2012 Lukaskirche, Dresden account played by Lisa Batiashvili with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann, which has grown on me since I reviewed the recording in 2013. Batiashvili plays Joachim’s ‘ex Joachim’ Stradivarius (1715), providing an excellent performance of immaculate intonation. An additional choice is the glorious 1981 Berlin account of real freshness from the teenage Anne-Sophie Mutter with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan also on Deutsche Grammophon. Although those two are now my firmly established choices, Tetzlaff runs them close with a first-rate account that I will certainly often revisit.

Sixty years after Brahms’, Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto was commissioned by the violin soloist Louis Krasner, is unquestionably one of the greatest of the twentieth century. It is a remarkably lyrical score, full of searing emotion. Berg inscribed it ‘To the memory of an angel’ in remembrance of the tragic death of Manon Gropius who had contracted polio. Known as ‘Mutzi’, the eighteen-year-old, an aspiring actress, was the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. Berg completed it in 1935; it was premiered posthumously in 1936 in Barcelona by Krasner and is Berg’s last complete work.

Berg didn’t totally abandon tonality in writing it but created an individual sound-world by profitably merging features of Romanticism with his own variant of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system. It has a two-movement design, each of which is divided into two parts. Significantly, Berg uses quotations from Carinthian folk melodies and also writes a set of variations on J.S. Bach’s chorale Es ist genug (It is enough), BWV 60. There is considerable speculation regarding its meaning: each of the movements and sub-movements are often regarded as depictions of Manon Gropius. Some Berg scholars have proposed the presence in the score of ‘secret-programmes’ (including numerological schemes), such as references to Marie Scheuchl ‘Mizzi’, a kitchen maid with whom he had an illegitimate daughter Albine, and his mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin ‘Mopinka’, for whom love tokens are present in his Lyric Suite.

Tetzlaff faces the technical and emotional challenges of Berg’s score with assurance providing an outstanding account. It feels as if Tetzlaff knows the work inside out as he delves down to the deepest layers of the writing. The ominous spectre of death is evoked yet there are also sunlit glimpses of positivity. This is an emotionally affecting performance of a haunting beauty that bordering on the overwhelming. In both concertos, he is adeptly partnered by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Robin Ticciati. It really feels as if all participants are on the same page in these expertly balanced performances. 

The recording of the Berg concerto I now most play is Gil Shaham’s insightful and compelling 2018 San Francisco performance. Shaham plays beautifully in collaboration with his stellar orchestral partners the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas (review). Admirable, too, is the 1995 Dresden account played by Reiko Watanabe with the Staatskapelle Dresden under Giuseppe Sinopoli. Watanabe’s sensitive and engaging performance was recorded live in the Semperoper Dresden and originally released on Teldec (reissued on Warner Elatus). Tetzlaff is in such exceptional form here that his account provides strong competition to those two recordings.

Both recordings enjoy excellent sonics; there is very little unwanted noise in the live Brahms concerto and no applause has been included. Tetzlaff has written the booklet essay, providing some interesting personal insights into both concertos.  

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Stephen Barber (January 2023)

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