One of the last pieces Robert Schumann wrote before he attempted suicide (the consequences of which did lead to his eventual death) was a violin concerto for his good friend Joseph Joachim to perform. Joachim did not think much of the work and it remained in the violinist’s possession, unpublished, when Schumann died. Joachim eventually gave the manuscript to the Prussian National Library, stipulating that the work not be made public until 100 years after the composer’s death. The Nazis, looking for an “Aryan” work to replace Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in the repertory, did not honor Joachim’s stipulation (Joachim was anyway Jewish), and so the work came to the public for the first time in the 1930s.
German violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave it a go this evening in the Konzerthaus with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the young British conductor Robin Ticciati. Unfortunately, Joachim’s assessment was correct, and the work really should have been left on the library shelf. The tone is overall dark, and the tempo slow, but Teztlaff approached it with a warm sound and smoothed the jagged edges. He could have nevertheless given it a more robust reading, but in the end it turned out as not one of Schumann’s best efforts. The writing for orchestra was thin and generally unfinished (although Schumann considered it done). An encore (sounded like a baroque-era violin sonata) by Teztlaff did not help much – far too dull to liven the mood.
After the intermission, however, the real revelations began. Bruckner’s 4th Symphony, probably his most approachable symphony, receives so many performances that I did not think I could learn anything new tonight. Ticciati’s interpretation was revealing and magnificent (and the Symphoniker executed to perfection).
Ticciati took the outer movements more slowly than usual, drawing out the harmonies. Rather than overwhelming us with sound, he made the work subdued, indeed delicate. This allowed for glorious contrasts when the brass choirs rang out, soaring over the stillness. Rather than opening up the heavens, as Bruckner symphonies do, this one stayed close to the earth – letting us explore its intracacies with microscope rather than a telescope. The universe Bruckner described remains huge – but we are just little specks within it. Ticciati did not give a minimalistic interpretation at all – the orchestra and its sound remained full and bright – but by turning the whole work into a microcosmos he drastically altered the way we heard and experienced the world.
The slow second movement Andante danced a slow dance. The third movement started to pick up tempo, so that the finale, while returning to the pensive structure of the first movement, actually began to demonstrate increasing tension, left unresolved until the final chorale. God is great.