SCHUMANN: Violin Concerto in d minor; Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, “Spring”; Phantasy in C Major – Thomas Zehetmair, v. & cond. / Orch. de chamber de Paris – ECM New Series

Zehetmair’s “double duty” as violinist and conductor produces poetry and happy energy music. 

 SCHUMANN: Violin Concerto in d minor, WoO 23; Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 38 “Spring”; Phantasy in C Major for Violin and Orch., Op. 131 – Thomas Zehetmair, v. & cond. / Orch. de chamber de Paris – ECM New Series 2396 48111369, 79:00 (4/29/16) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Founded in 1978, the Orchestre de chambre de Paris quickly established its reputation as one of Europe’s leading chamber orchestras. In 2012, Thomas Zehetmair was appointed the orchestra’s principal conductor and artistic advisor and on this recording, made at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in February 2014, does double duty as both soloist and conductor. Zehetmair has approached the 1853 Violin Concerto with a new urgency and respect, returning to the original version without the emendations accorded the “flawed” work from Joachim and Kulenkampff.

Collectors well know the unhappy circumstances of the Violin Concerto and its suppression from publication by Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim after Schumann’s 1854 suicide attempt. The work found itself rediscovered in the 1930s, when its world premiere was to have been granted to Yehudi Menuhin.  The National Socialists, however, staged the premiere as a Nazi coup, assigning the debut to Georg Kulenkampff and Karl Boehm on 28 November 1937. The work seems wrought from one substantial motif with variations, cyclic in the manner of both a Baroque study and homage to Beethoven’s capacity for through-composition. The last movement converts the oft-played main tune into a melancholy polonaise, filled out by lush harmonies and sweetly sentimental turns of phrase. The Zehetmair rendition grants a gentle noblesse to the entire work, at turns richly ornate and elegantly and intimately dignified.

The Phantasie derives from happy meetings between the Schumanns and Joseph Joachim in August 1853. Schumann wanted a strong concertante work for the violinist, wrought in sonata-form with a cadenza. The fabric of the piece evolves from a series of repeated tropes – at first in the relative a minor – and builds in the form of an improvisation, sometimes quite virtuosic. Having abandoned the somewhat melancholy mood of the opening, the piece assumes a jaunty air, but it falls into Schumann’s late pattern of repetition. Prior to this performance from Zehetmair, that by Ruggiero Ricci served as my yardstick. At its premiere on 27 September 1853, the work proved highly successful, and Joachim had no qualms in further championing its charms.

Zehetmair does equal “poetic justice” to the original edition of Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony, the happy product of a dazzling four days’ inspiration: 23-26 January 1841. The splendid resonances in the first movement between the strings, brass, and tympani converge in chaste but elastic style. Zehetmair does not reach the exuberant heights that Bernstein attains in his rendition with the New York Philharmonic, but I think Zehetmair’s ambition remain decidedly less epic. The radiance of the work comes through the happy interplay of ranging strings, pedal points, and the influx of woodwind riffs that beckon to the feeling of rebirth in Nature and Spirit. That Schumann took words from poet Adolf Boettger as his “rhythmic” kernel adds merely the literary sensibility that always accompanies the Schumann ethos.

The second movement Larghetto offers a lied treatment of the opening motto theme. The music proceeds in the manner of an ornate rondo, with winds and cellos in B-flat that combine with octave violins and triplet violas to create a luxurious sound that becomes a hymn before the transition to the Scherzo that moves in the minor mode without succumbing to melancholy. Zehetmair and his forces weave an archaic tapestry in the secondary theme as the small phrases combine and collapse, then burst forth in triumph over a pedal point. The interior filigree enjoys a rusticity that becomes a free-wheeling dance in the Mendelssohn manner at the Molto piu vivace section.  Schumann had recently discovered the Schubert Ninth Symphony, and his own Allegro animato e grazioso echoes much of that work’s grand spontaneity. The tripping motif emanates a buoyancy and joie de vivre that Zehetmair preserves with dedicated and delicate fluency. The various contours and shades of color retain their suave energy courtesy of Recording Supervisor Guido Gorna and engineer Frederic Briant.

—Gary Lemco

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