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Royal Northern Sinfonia - Bartok/Casken/Beethoven captures Thomas Zehetmairs farewell concert / BBC Music Magazine

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This New Series album represents a summing up of Thomas Zehetmair’s work with Britain’s Royal Northern Sinfonia, described by the Austrian-born violinist and conductor, at the time of its recording, as “a résumé and a departure”.  In his 12 years as Music Director of the British chamber orchestra, Zehetmair was noted both for bringing compelling new music into the repertoire and for insightful performances of classical and modern composition.

The album includes the premiere recording of British composer John Casken’s That Subtle Knot, written in 2012-3 for Zehetmair, Ruth Killius and the Northern Sinfonia. Inspired by the poetry of John Donne, the composition establishes a broad arc between the English Renaissance and music of today, paints portraits of the dedicatees, and draws influence, too, from the rugged landscapes of the North of England.  The title of the piece comes from Donne’s poem The Ecstasy. The poem focuses upon two lovers sitting on a riverbank, hands entwined: “Our eye beams twisted and did thread / Our eyes upon one double string.” The image seemed to John Casken perfect for a double concerto for viola and violin.

Ruth Killius opens the piece, with solo viola played “as if recalling an old folk song”, and the entrance of independent part-writing for the violin begins a process in which two strong and independent characters explore a changing musical universe together. Ruth Killius also shines in Bartók’s Viola Concerto, one of the last pieces written by the Hungarian composer. As Colin Anderson wrote in online magazine Classical Source, “Ruth Killius really brought the music alive, finding rustic vitality and deep nostalgia in the romantic and rhapsodic first movement.”

And Zehetmair as conductor fully brings out what liner note writer Giselher Schubert describes as “the juggernaut propulsive thrust” of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. In a five star review of the live event Guardian critic Alfred Hickling wrote “For his final concert as music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Thomas Zehetmair decided to go out with a bang. Four very loud, extremely rapid bangs to be specific, as he launched into a valedictory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with an attack so urgent and incisive that it sounded less like destiny hammering at the door than destiny forcing an entrance with emergency equipment.  It’s testimony to Zehetmair’s mercurial talent that he’s capable of springing these surprises even in the most familiar repertoire.”

Bartók • Beethoven • John Casken
John Casken: That Subtle Knot – double concerto for violin and viola; Bartók: Viola Concerto; Beethoven: Symphony No. 5
Ruth Killius (viola); Royal Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair (violin)
ECM ECM 2595   77:38 mins

BBC Music Magazine's Martin Cotton writes…..This well-proportioned programme captures Thomas Zehetmair’s 2014 farewell concert as music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, with his wife, viola player Ruth Killius, in the Bartók, and a double concerto, That Subtle Knot, written for them by John Casken.

The title of Casken’s double concerto, taken from The Ecstasy by John Donne, is mirrored in the intertwining of the solo lines, which develop from the spare, modally inflected, folk-like beginning. Much of the music is slow and meditative, interrupted by a few more rhythmic sections, where textures are fuller and more acerbic, but it rises to passionate climaxes, and is given a performance to match.

It’s not a great leap to the autumnal world of Bartók’s Viola Concerto, where the soloist’s opening line is a close cousin to the Casken. Again there’s passion in the music, especially in the central Adagio religioso, even though it’s more restrained here. Killius finds the right internal warmth, but is also skittish in the helter-skelter finale.

The orchestra shows off its own credentials in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which starts at a terrific lick, and is incredibly exciting. It takes a little while to settle in rhythmic detail, but Zehetmair encourages the longer melodic lines to bloom without losing impetus.

There’s more flexibility in the Andante, although it never hangs about, and the textures are clean and bright. The Scherzo surprises with its accents and wide range of dynamics, before the release of the finale, controlled, but rushing to a thrilling conclusion.

The recording could have more presence, but this is very much a document of a live event. It’s a pity that they edited out the applause.

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