Brahms’s Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff and Simon Rattle

20 Jun 2015

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Christian Tetzlaff

  • Johannes Brahms
    Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major, op. 77 (45 min.)

    Christian Tetzlaff

  • Claude Debussy
    Images pour orchestre (39 min.)

  • George Enescu
    Romanian Rhapsody in A major, op. 11 no. 1 (22 min.)

  • free

    Christian Tetzlaff on his season as Artist in Residence (23 min.)

Christian Tetzlaff is acclaimed by the press as a “master violinist” who “loses himself in the compositions, who completely immerses himself, to emerge unpretentiously on the other side,” someone who is able to combine “dazzling technique and analytical acuity with overwhelming musicianship and a healthy dose of wit,” as a virtuoso who produces a “beauty and richness, variety and colourfulness of sound” from his instrument that is “simply amazing”. In the 2014/2015 season, the Berliner Philharmoniker were delighted to have the extraordinary musician Christian Tetzlaff as their Artist in Residence.

The musical high point of Christian Tetzlaff’s artistic partnership with the orchestra was undoubtedly his performance of Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The second half of the concert included Images by Claude Debussy, inspired by folk melodies from England, Spain and France, an orchestral triptych iridescent in every conceivable instrumental colour. The programme concluded with George Enescu’s First Romanian Rhapsody, inspired by the folklore of his homeland, a vibrant, instrumentally colourful piece that finishes with a furious stretta.

A Hamburg Native in Paradise: Johannes Brahms

In summer 1878 the violinist Joseph Joachim received “a number of violin passages” by post, followed by a letter in which Johannes Brahms commented on these samples of his work on a forthcoming violin concerto: “I’ll be satisfied if you just say a word, and perhaps write in a few: difficult, uncomfortable, impossible, etc. The whole business is in four movements; I’ve written out the beginning of the last so that you can forbid the awkward passages at once!” Apparently it was his uncertainty about technical matters that made Brahms, who never got past the elementary level of violin playing, hesitate so long before finally daring to tackle a concerto for the instrument of his long-time friend. The violinist answered: “It is a great and genuine joy for me that you are writing a violin concerto (in four movements, no less!). I immediately looked through what you sent, and you’ll find a note and comment here and there about changes – although without a score it can’t really be appreciated.”

The discussion that began in writing continued with direct conversation and practical try-outs in personal meetings at Pörtschach on Lake Wörth, the idyllic resort where Brahms spent his summer holidays, and soon afterwards in Hamburg, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Philharmonic Society Concerts. Even after the premiere, which Brahms and Joachim presented with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on New Year’s Day 1879, the work was still discussed, altered, polished and improved before it was finally published by Simrock in October 1879. The “whole business” only had three movements, since Brahms had “stumbled over the Adagio and Scherzo” in October 1878, as he said, discarded the two movements – which may have found “refuge” later in the Second Piano Concerto – and replaced them with another Adagio.

Brahms’s Violin Concerto not only shares its place of origin at Pörtschach, the key of D major and the pastoral character of the main theme – with its natural, triadic melody – with the Second Symphony, composed the previous year, but also its relaxed tone. In a commemorative speech on Brahms, the writer Martin Gregor-Dellin referred to an “inner cheerfulness which refutes the idea that great art can only flourish in the context of constant suffering, poverty and misfortune and not even a harmonic and generally balanced character is able to dispel the existential mysteries in art”. Like a programme for a successful life, Gregor-Dellin entitled his address Brahms als geistige Lebensform (Brahms as a Spiritual Way of Life).

Dreamscapes: Claude Debussy

Like so many French artists of his day, Claude Debussy was a passionate Anglophile “in his liking for beautiful silver for the table, for whiskey and for the very strong tea which he prepared himself for breakfast with the same slowness and care he devoted to everything,” as his stepdaughter Dolly Bardac recalled. Recollections of England, the real, the imaginary, and memories of scenes of melancholy fantasy run through Debussy’s Gigues, composed between 1909 and 1912, the first section of the Images, his set of “pictures for orchestra”. The gigue originated in the British Isles, then spread to the European Continent, and to this day the jig is still a popular folk dance in Scotland and Ireland. Debussy integrated it into his score as an animating dance element, but his treatment of it was inspired in a roundabout way by the song “Dansons la gigue” (Let’s Dance the Gigue) by his countryman Charles Bordes. A ballad from Northumberland also accentuates the echoes of traditional English music in this orchestral work by a Frenchman. Even the lament of the oboe d’amore seems to be based on a folk melody.

The scene changes from one moment to the next with an abrupt transition. The fantastic journey continues from England to Spain, transporting the listener to the brilliant light of the Mediterranean sun. Par les rues et par les chemins (Through the Streets and Lanes) is the first of three movements with the overall title Ibéria that form the central section of Images, which is also a trilogy. The second movement, Les parfums de la nuit (The Fragrances of the Night), is steeped in the seductive atmosphere of a Spanish summer night which gradually awakens, giving way to a holiday morning. Le matin d’un jour de fête(The Morning of a Feast Day) is a turbulent piece whose collage-like scene changes and mental leaps invite comparison with a composition that did not even exist yet when Debussy completed his Ibéria in 1908: Igor Stravinsky’s ballet music to Petrushka.

After England and Spain, the last of the Images arrives at its setting – the composer’s French homeland. In the Rondes de printemps(Spring Rounds) which, like Ibéria, was conceived for two pianos in 1905 but not completed as an orchestral score until 1909, Debussy quotes two French children’s songs. These “round dances of spring” are “a piece with a distinctively ethereal quality,” Debussy emphasized, and consequently one cannot treat it “like a robust symphony that has four feet to walk on”. In his pictures for orchestra he tried to capture impressions of reality: “Some imbeciles call it ‘impressionism’, a term that is utterly misapplied, especially by the critics.” Claude Debussy’s Images for orchestra depict visions of life, reflections, inner views, more real than reality.

The National Hero: George Enescu

“The Hungarians and Romanians,” Yehudi Menuhin wrote in his autobiography, “choose musicians as national heroes. In Hungary Zoltán Kodály shares the honour with Bartók, but in Romania George Enescu’s primacy in his countrymen’s devotion is beyond division or dispute.” Menuhin could speak of that “devotion” from his own experience and memories of his visits to Romania. And he shared it without reservation – this admiration for Enescu, who for him was much more than “just” an excellent violin teacher and artistic advisor: “Enescu will always remain the Absolute by which I judge others, finding them, but especially myself, wanting.”

Enescu lived, worked and travelled in the western hemisphere as a composer, violinist, pianist, chamber musician and conductor, successfully reconciling these diverse activities with many years of teaching in Paris, Italy and the United States. Not until the founding of the People’s Republic of Romania in 1947, however, did Enescu take up permanent residence in Paris – more for personal than political motives. Until then, he travelled to his villa in the fashionable Romanian health resort of Sinaia every year. In the country of his birth he increasingly grew into the role of the tireless founding father. He organized opera performances and concert series, was active as a teacher, patron and author, endowed the Enescu Composition Prize, was president of the Romanian Composers’ Society and founded the symphony orchestra in Iaşi. But he also demonstrated and strengthened his strong ties with his homeland in his music. Enescu composed the first of two Romanian Rhapsodies, op. 11 No. 1 in A major, in 1901, a thrilling orchestral score with an abundance of soloistic, concertante, almost improvisatory prologues and interludes, but still entirely under the influence of Romantic nationalism and Liszt’s virtuosically exuberant rhapsodies. In any case, this brilliant work can be recommended as an entrée into Enescu’s musical world – and it need not fear competition as a rousing closing number. Rarely is the audience in a better mood as it heads for bus stops and parking spaces after a concert.

Wolfgang Stähr

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Christian Tetzlaff, a native of Hamburg, studied at the Lübeck University of Music with Uwe-Martin Haiberg, and in Cincinnati with Walter Levin. As one of the leading violinists of his generation, he performs all over the world on the concert stages of the music capitals and at major international festivals – either as a soloist with renowned orchestras, with violin recitals or as an equally enthusiastic chamber musician. Christian Tetzlaff’s chamber music partners include Leif Ove Andsnes, Lars Vogt, Sabine Meyer, Heinrich Schiff and Tabea Zimmermann. His outstanding interpretations of Bach’s solo suites and sonatas as well as the violin concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Berg, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Ligeti and Widmann exemplify the universality and the many facets of his repertoire and artistic ability. The artist has been heard in Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation concerts several times since he made his debut in 1995. As the orchestraʼs artist in residence this season, he has already performed in three chamber concerts with members of the orchestra and of the Orchestra Academy; he also gave a solo concert of works by Johann Sebastian Bach and Béla Bartók at the end of May. These concerts bring the artistʼs residency with the Berliner Philharmoniker to a close. Christian Tetzlaff plays a violin by the Bonn violin maker Stefan-Peter Greiner and teaches regularly at the Kronberg Academy near Frankfurt.

Watch now

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

Try out the Digital Concert Hall!

In our free playlist, Kirill Petrenko conducts works including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Peter Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. The best seat in the house is reserved just for you!

View our free playlist