Christian Tetzlaff and James Levine at Tanglewood: Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps and Brahms’ Violin Concerto

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Christian Tetzlaff, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Brahms' Violin Concerto, photo Hilary Scott
Christian Tetzlaff, James Levine, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Brahms' Violin Concerto, photo Hilary Scott

Tanglewood, Sunday, July 5, 2:30 p.m. Koussevitzky Music Shed
Boston Symphony Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Christian Tetzlaff, violin

Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Brahms, Violin Concerto

After Friday’s intelligently conceived, but incompletely realized Pathétique Maestro Levine deserved a personal triumph, I thought, and it came, not quite by surprise, in the form of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. His performances of this work have been highly regarded for years, most recently in December of last year, when it was performed as a hundredth-birthday tribute to Elliott Carter, whose career was shaped by a performance of the work he heard in his youth. Hence, this afternoon, every detail was thoroughly polished. Sometimes these Tanglewood reprises benefit from the respite, and the confidence and ensuing relaxation which arise from it. I can’t really compare this performance with the winter event, which, because of a snowstorm, I could only hear over the WGBH website, but with top-notch sound quality. The Music Shed also furnishes an exceptionally sympathetic acoustic space for the huge dynamics and implied vastnesses of ancient Russia, as the tribespeople celebrate the earth in their spring ritual.

Levine’s treatment was tightly knit and flowing, as the rituals unfolded, providing a tangible structure and shape against Stravinsky’s extreme contrasts and dynamics. This sense of narrative coherence fortunately didn’t stop Levine from making the most of the dramatic pauses and the more delicate ppp passages, in which the participants’ consciousness appears to sink through the early spring mists into Earth herself.

You may well ask what the Brahms Violin Concerto has to do with Stravinsky’s radical ballet. Perhaps its best to say “not much” and leave it at that. However, the concerto is a work of equal rhythmic complexity, and the Sacre opened my ears to that. Brahms explored folk music as well as his own abstract pattern-making intellect to mark most of his work with distinct rhythmic signatures. If you listen through the main lines to the rests, rhythms, and accents of the inner voices, a subtle interactive whole makes its impression on your ears. This could not have been more fully realized by Christian Tetzlaff and the BSO under Levine’s alert and energetic accompaniment. Tetzlaff is entirely at home in the quieter, more reflective moments of whatever he plays. Even playing pianissimo in the Music Shed, he can project all the subtleties of his phrasing and the pulsing body of his sound. He is equally the master of heroic gestures like the multiple-stopped minor subject which provides a muscular foil to Brahms’ noble and dreamy opening theme. In this way he a gave fully integrated reading of the concerto. His finely honed lyric details—never fussy—are full of life and energy, while his grand gestures are crisply executed and precise in rhtyhm, never even suggesting bombast or exaggeration. The lyrical passages have the delicate tone and contour Tetzlaff is known for, but, using his entire body, he fills them with a rays of vibrant energy, which shine forth even in the most inward moods.

While the tempo in the first movement was by no means unusually fast and retained all the breadth of the music’s pulse, the finale, following a perfectly judged slow movement, broke loose at an unusually animated pace, successfully conveying a sense of flow and lightness, which Tetzlaff balanced with rich chords from his lower strings and the strength and precision of his rhythms. The cadenzas, both in the first and third movements were far-ranging in technique, expression, and color. I’ve heard few performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto that can stand comparison with Tetzlaff and Levine’s many-sided, and insightful performance.

Ever the gentleman, Mr. Teztlaff played an encore, the Gavotte en rondeau from J. S. Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 in E major. Proceeding in a lively dancing tempo, he gave a reading with was well-mannered and courtly, and full of life, nuance, and color, even at the quietest pianissimo, in the enormous Music Shed.

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