Christian Tetzlaff has risen to become one of the most admired international soloists, much favored by top conductors like James Levine for his musicianship and reflective, thoughtful style. Tetzlaff represents the kind of virtuoso who puts the score ahead of crowd-pleasing display (in the lineage of restrained virtuosity exemplified by Szeryng and the deep musicality of Menuhin). Restraint is the key feature, in fact, of this unusual pairing of the thrice-familiar Mendelssohn concerto and the long suppressed Schumann. The composer's heirs suppressed the work feeling that it showed too much evidence of Schumann's mental and musical deterioration, and there was a vigorous fight not to let it be played even as late as 1937. Since then a handful of violinists have made it a cause, the most prominent being Gidon Kremer, but there is no denying its flaws. This wandering, diffuse work is far from inspired, despite its shining moments.
I wish that Tetzlaff showed more conviction in both works. The Mendelssohn is all but reticent, missing the exuberance of the first movement, dwelling on the slow movement as if it were a meditation, and finding some vitality only in the mercurial finale. Everything is graceful and lovingly done - Tetzlaff is never less than musically impeccable - but I didn't sit up and take notice the way I do when I hear any of Isaac Stern's recordings. Perhaps this performance fits the model of "letting the music speak for itself," a model that rarely touches my heart or arouses my interest. I want interpretations that are more involving.
The same graceful reticence marks the Schumann, and here it works better, because even when the music flags in interest, Tetzlaff is always there to gracefully bridge the gaps. The dancing finale in particular is enjoyable, and Paavo Jarvi's alert conducting helps carry the show. The preceding slow movement gives us some appealing melancholy, even if the central theme is not one of Schumann's best. For all its sweetness, this lied for violin and orchestra feels unfocused, as if Schumann has lost his concentration. That is even more true in the long (14 min.) opening movement, which consists of gestures in search of a structure, one event following another without sufficient interest or coherence to hold the listener. Of course, "the listener" always means "this listener;" esteemed artists have a reason for reviving this score.
In the end, neither reading is griping enough to surpass the best rivals, and the opening Phantasie Op 131 by Schumann stands as a perfect example of how even the most refined artistry can't rescue a distressingly banal score.