Performing Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.53 with the National Symphony Orchestra, violinist Christian Tetzlaff – who is known for his decisively lean aesthetic approach – established that clarity runs deep; clarity booms even as arpeggios fly by and double stops splinter the finger board. Bookended by Dvořák’s Carnival overture and Robert Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C major, Op.61 with Christoph Eschenbach’s equally clear vision at the podium, the evening was a model of artistic intention and lucidity.

Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Composed in 1891 as part of a trilogy, Carnival embodies vivacity. Cymbal crashes and a nimble tempo set the 10-minute work off to a lively ride that slows and quickens, requiring a certain deftness. Eschenbach pulled and pushed tempos and dynamics with controlled excellence, the NSO responding in kind. The violin solo midway was a particularly dulcet treat.

Eschenbach’s focused artistic approach coalesced with Tetzlaff’s from the moment both took the stage for Dvořák’s Violin Concerto. Although Tetzlaff is currently one of the most in-demand soloists in the world, he balances unusually between celebrity and anonymity, with emphasis on the latter. He notoriously evades social media and any kind of self-promotion; he eschews old world drama, the lush and the grand, the Elizabeth Taylor diva-hood many soloists seek to command. Instead, he is a purist: let the music speak for itself, he seems to say in the performances I’ve watched.

With wild technical feats, embellishments and romantic phrases wrapped around Dvořák’s Violin Concerto, this sparseness would appear difficult to achieve, but the ensemble Tetzlaff and Eschenbach fostered together more than delivered it. Though his fingers splayed to capture octaves and cover runs from low to up on high, each landed with crystalline finesse, as though the fingerboard had planned to receive it. True to his reputation for achieving fascinatingly uncommon timbres, Tetzlaff bent notes, mirroring his knees – the only real noticeable movement he made. The uncanny communication of musical ideas extended from Tetzlaff’s fingerboard to Eschenbach and the symphony. At the beginning of the Finale, which opens with a delicate conversation between the first violins and the soloist, Eschenbach, Tetzlaff and the section moved as one.

Schumann’s Second Symphony offered a thoughtful conclusion to the evening. Composed late in his life, the symphony does not deploy the traditional modes of pomp and grandiosity, instead weaving counterpoint threads in with coquettish dotted rhythms that build beautifully into a complete idea. Under the direction of Eschenbach, the NSO pulled that line through magnificently; following the example of Tetzlaff, it did so by delving into textures both dynamic and timbral, precision at its core. Physically, Eschenbach directs with relative reserve – feet planted at a practical distance, occasionally bending at the waist, but mostly communicating with his forearms and fingers that supply succinct cut-offs and releases. The tempos fell flawlessly, the dynamics blooming and fading meticulously.

When artists attend so scrupulously, it rarely exceeds the contrived. But Tetzlaff and Eschenbach illustrate that with attention comes intention, and that can mean an exquisite musical experience.