Composers: Beethoven, Sibelius
Compositions: Violin Concertos
Performers: Christian Tetzlaff, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Robin Ticciati
Catalogue Number: Ondine ODE1334-2

How good to hear these two ‘milestones’, as Christian Tetzlaff calls them, of the violin repertoire, back-to-back. Hardly a second separates them on the recording (nearly 100 years historically). But don’t be tempted to hit ‘pause’ – you’ll miss out on a marvellously disconcerting effect.

If the violin concerto as a genre suggests both dialogue and conflict, for Tetzlaff it’s more like war. But in a good way. For example, he speaks (in the booklet interview) of the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D (1806) as suggesting “children’s songs… set in opposition to the catastrophe”.

Regarding Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor (1905), he talks of “the fighting person” and the “psychic torments and joys of a protagonist”. The martial sounds of timpani in the Beethoven and the frenzied outbursts in the Sibelius encourage such characterisations. But Tetzlaff also mentions “circus mirth”, “nonsense”, and the “ecstatic rather than the virtuosic”.

To the Beethoven first, and here soloist, orchestra and conductor are so clearly in accord (Tetzlaff goes so far as to say he and Ticciati “share a heartbeat”). If in the first movement they open up space to allow the drama to unfold, they imbue the slow movement with a deceptive naivete while injecting brio and sprezzatura into a joyful Rondo. The miracle here is the masterly combination of levity and depth.

But there is barely time to reflect, as with the Sibelius we are thrust into a very different soundworld indeed. How intense, how troubling and troubled the first movement sounds here. How exquisite, how heartfelt, the second, the violin’s lower register simultaneously rich and bleak. How utterly electrifying the third movement, Tetzlaff taking Sibelius at his word to play it “as fast as possible”. Another miracle – a freedom and fluency born of experience allied with total identification with the material. In the world yet not of the world about sums it up.

So: two contrasting concertos rarely heard together, and certainly rarely heard performed as well as they are here. Of course, Tetzlaff has recorded both before, on separate occasions – his Beethoven with David Zinman and the Zürich Tonhalle Orchestra is especially fine.

But this new recording, which again features Beethoven’s own cadenzas (the first movement’s adapted from the composer’s piano version) and ornamentation, really raises the bar. Add what must be one of the finest recorded accounts of the Sibelius in recent times (I have to go back to Ginette Neveu with Barbirolli for anything quite so compelling) and you have an essential purchase.

Christian Tetzlaff’s recording of the Beethoven and Sibelius violin concertos on Ondine is Limelight‘s Recording of the Month in December. Read our interview with Christian Tetzlaff here.