Exactly one week from today (on April 29), ECM New Series will release its latest recording of Thomas Zehetmair. As a violinist Zehetmair has an impressive recording history with ECM, which includes solo albums, a duo album with violist Ruth Killius, and as leader his Zehetmair Quartet, which gives all of their concert performances from memory. He has also been honing his skills as a conductor, particularly with chamber orchestras. The new album, which is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com, presents him conducting the Orchestre de chamber de Paris, with which he has been Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor since 2012.
The album is devoted entirely to orchestral music by Robert Schumann. The most familiar work is likely to be the Opus 38 (first) symphony in B-flat major, which Schumann called the “Spring Symphony.” Composed in early 1841, this was Schumann’s first symphonic composition. Opus 38 is flanked on both sides by two much later works for violin and orchestra, both composed in 1853. The album begins with the WoO 23 violin concerto in D minor and concludes with the Opus 131 fantasy in C major for violin and orchestra. These are the only two pieces that Schumann composed for violin and orchestra, and Zehetmair does double duty as both conductor and soloist.
Schumann has taken a lot of criticism for his orchestration skills (or lack thereof). Much of it involves his tendency to overload his brass; and there is a history of conductors and editors who have tried to “set the balance straight” prior to performing his orchestral music. There is no denying that the instrumentation for Opus 38 includes four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones, particularly if one is thinking of having it performed by a chamber orchestra. On the other hand when one listens to the brass section, one realizes that Schumann has a particular interest in the one bass trombone, suggesting that he was as interested in seeking out new sonorities as he was new approaches to “programmatic” structure in many of his piano compositions.
The trick, then, is not to “write out” an excess of brass but just to keep the brass players from being too excessive. There are probably as many jokes about the inability of brass players to do this as there are viola jokes, but it is worth considering that the task may be more viable when set in the reduced scale of a chamber orchestra. Zehetmair makes a strong case that, if the brass feel less like they are competing with the rest of the ensemble in its entirety, they are more likely to manage their dynamic levels; and, if they are not, the conductor is more likely to be aware of them and restrain them accordingly. The result on this recording is a very welcome reading of Opus 38 that sounds more like an innovative approach to making a symphony and less like a soundtrack for Hollywood spectacle.
(Mind you, I still really enjoy the recording that Wilhelm Furtwängler made with the Vienna Philharmonic on October 10, 1951. However, I have no trouble confessing that as a guilty pleasure. We all have them. This one does little harm to anyone except those conducting students determined to imitate Furtwängler in all things!)
Zehetmair’s sense of balance as a conductor is even more evident when he is also playing violin. Even without the brass section, there are any number of instances of surging rhetoric in Schumann’s orchestra music; and there is a generous share of that surging in the concerto. The fantasy is a bit more modest, and one can imagine that violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom both pieces were written) had a strong enough personality to hold the spotlight, even if someone else was doing the conducting. To pursue that metaphor, Zehetmair always knows where the spotlight should be pointing; and, however preoccupied he may be with the challenges facing the soloist, the conductor always seems to find just the right levels of dynamic balance for a composition that was never given a performance during the lifetime of either Schumann or Joachim.
The result is a recording that impresses for the level of thoughtfulness behind the performances but is just as impressive for teasing out the expressiveness of each of the three compositions recorded.