City Halls, Glasgow
The violinist-cum-conductor Thomas Zehetmair has, and always has had, an arresting stage charisma. It’s a mix of unshakeable natural talent (especially on the violin) and a strength of personality that eschews outright showmanship though making up for that with an almost pugilistic belief in his own interpretational beliefs.
Look no further than the opening work in this SCO programme – Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor – in which he wielded outright control as soloist/director. The latter role is seldom needed with this orchestra, which has an innate ability to propel its own destiny. But in this instance, it was Zehetmair’s way or the highway. And it was strangely discomforting.
All began well, a crisp, nimble momentum informing the opening bars, but then – where the soloist ventures into flowery offshoots of its own – Zehetmair began to tease his collaborators with extraneous rhythmic liberties that often overstepped the limits of free speech. They rocked the boat, and suddenly the SCO sounded nervous, as if trying to second guess the next move, but doing so with mild signs of panic.
The slow movement’s lengthy discourse was much more settling, Zehetmair’s greater discipline now steadying the ship, and the jig-like finale was only marginally afflicted, but the performance never completely recovered from its earlier eccentricities.
You could call Zehetmair’s own completion of an unfinished 1790 String Trio Fragment by Mozart equally eccentric, but his approach in giving performance life to the 100 bars of exposition Mozart penned during the last year or so of his life is genuinely fascinating.
Zehetmair’s solution, premiered last month in Geneva, is to create an extended “response” as opposed to a literal extension. Thus the string orchestra picks up from the opening one-to-a part string trio – petering out as they exhaust the original music – as if on a rescue mission to bring the wanderers home. If that encouraged compositional liberties on Zehetmair’s part, this performance applied them sensitively, just enough to address the strong hints of wild adventure in the extant Mozart material, but careful to preserve stylistic integrity in the new material.
The final two works in this 70-minute programme threw the spotlight wholly on Zehetmair the conductor/interpreter. In Mendelssohn’s 1834 overture Die Schöne Melusine – a work of real worth unearthed by the SCO in one of last season’s streamed concerts – he elicited playing that etched out every minutiae of the drama, from exquisitely-sculpted melodies to dizzying heights of expression.
Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony bears its own eccentricities, not least an opening finale theme that toys mischievously with natural expectations. In that sense, it was right up Zehetmair’s street, and there was no mistaking the fun embodied in this spirited performance. It wasn’t the SCO at its most refined, Zehetmair demanding brusqueness and brittle edge to the detriment of poise and poeticism.
If it was rough and ready at times, it was striking nonetheless, portraying Haydn in a spirit of high exuberance and laissez-faire, much of it to be enjoyed if not necessary approved of.