Every once in a while, as a reviewer, you are so utterly transfixed by a performance that it becomes an incredible effort to wrench yourself back into reality in order to put pen to paper, such is the visceral impact. And so it was with Christian Tetzlaff’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

The context for the concerto, logically placed in the second half of the concert, had been set earlier with pieces by composers who had great influence on the young Beethoven: Mozart and Haydn. The influence of both were felt keenly throughout the concerto, from the astonishing invention Beethoven weaves from the basic four note opening motif first heard on timpani (here, effectively articulated by Peter Hill using wooden-headed sticks) to the sublime, soaring, melodies in between.

Tetzlaff’s opening arpeggio emerged with a perfectly judged gradation from ethereal softness to a commanding fullness of tone. This tone was incredibly sweet in the high register, where much time is spent in this work, yet gutsy when required. The first movement is one of Beethoven’s longest. That it didn’t feel such was testament to Tetzlaff and a real meeting of minds between him, the orchestra and conductor, Olari Elts. We were drawn into a magical development section, cast in a shadowy minor key. As in his other concertos, Beethoven makes prominent use of woodwind soloists. Principal bassoonist, Gretha Tuls, shone here and in the other movements too. Tetzlaff dropped down to an almost inaudible pianissimo as he worked his way back to the recapitulation, rejoined by the orchestra triumphantly marking out the four note motif in unison.

Tetzlaff’s attack in the cadenza, Beethoven’s own version written for his piano transcription of the concerto, was startling. In this version, the timpanist joins in rather playfully and, given its prominence at the opening of the piece, appropriately. Tetzlaff’s double-stopping here was faultless. In the hushed opening to the second movement, the orchestra were all legato long lines in contrast to the period performance manners they had shown previously. Tetzlaff’s playing sang with great emotion, bordering on the melancholy.

The rondo finale stole in with no gap and there was clear relief in the hall as the tension from the previous movement was broken with a good old romp. Tetzlaff playfully introduced mini-cadenzas into the two fermatas and I am told that he transcribed these himself once again from Beethoven’s own.

If the first half of the concert did not hit such exulted heights it certainly came close. Elts had prepared the orchestra in terms of style quite thoroughly. Throughout the concert, strings were founded on three double basses and topped with ten first violins. They were nestled closely together and violin sections were divided to Elts’s left and right, a formation that had evolved by the time of Haydn’s and Mozart’s orchestras and that remained standard well into the twentieth century, as evidenced in the historical photograph of the CBSO with a young Adrian Boult in their programme booklet. Phrases passed between the two violin sections were heard to great effect, as well as important phrases played by the second violins, excitably encouraged by an animated Elts.

I was reminded that Haydn’s symphonies feature only very occasionally in large concert halls by the palpable sense of novelty and delight resulting from the exciting performance of his 86th symphony, commissioned by a Parisian concert society as part of the six works we now know as the ‘Paris’ symphonies. Elts’s performance exhibited ‘period’ manners (reduced vibrato, hard timpani sticks, tapered phrases) and dramatic dynamic contrasts. Yet, it did not feel constrained: Elts was not afraid to broaden basic tempi for second subjects. In the first movement, it was good to be reminded that Haydn really was the originator of the substantial symphonic argument that was to be the template for so many subsequent composers. There was no shortage of grace and wit in the second movement with Haydn’s shock fortissimo chords being allowed to resonate fully in Symphony Hall’s big space. The third movement proto-scherzo was taken very swiftly with some very cheeky rubato into the broader, waltzing trio. Haydn’s exhilarating finale really flew in the hands of these players with Elts making sure dynamics were carefully balanced so that all-important cello interjections were clear. There were virtuoso moments from all sections, including a bravura timpani flourish on a climactic pause.

The concert began with Mozart’s ballet music written for his opera, Idomeneo. With the orchestra tearing into the opening it was a chance for them to demonstrate the style that Elts had cultivated in their playing. Despite some tempi feeling daringly swift and a sense of the orchestra getting used to their unfamiliar formation, it was an entertainingly dramatic rendition nevertheless.