In the San Francisco Symphony, we have a world-class orchestra on our doorstep, and it’s worth going up to Davies Symphony Hall in the city to hear it. Last week’s concerts, running Wednesday to Saturday, were conducted by music director Michael Tilson Thomas and featured Christian Tetzlaff on violin. A wide-traveling soloist — I was in Chicago last month and heard him with the Symphony there — Tetzlaff was an utter charmer on Wednesday in Béla Bartók’s long, difficult and modernist Violin Concerto No. 2.
Taking its strongly spicy, folk-influenced melodies with deep lyricism, Tetzlaff sped through fast parts of his concerto with steely assurance. Accompanied on various occasions by such unusual orchestral accompanists as harp, timpani or percussion battery, he gave a fierce but clear performance
Changing tone styles frequently, Tetzlaff ran back and forth between hard aggressiveness and a softer lyricism. The orchestra accompanied him with equally crisp and energetic chatter.
The concerto, written in 1937-38, sits on the edge between Bartók’s tough and wiry modernist style and the more ingratiating manner he adopted during his American exile of World War II. This performance could be enjoyed by fans of either of Bartók’s styles.
The concert began with Jean Sibelius’ early but wholly characteristic tone poem “Lemminkäinen’s Return.” It’s a short, dramatic, forward-thrusting work that passes in a rushing whirl. Its emotional manner fit well with the Bartók that followed.
What didn’t fit was the big work that followed after intermission, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, the most melancholy and autumnal work in a body that already tends far in that direction. It was a beautiful performance. This really is a great orchestra, and it has outstanding ability under MTT’s direction to make blended and thoughtfully-arranged sounds that are blissful to hear.
It’s possible, I suppose, to inject more vigor into this work — the scherzo movement shows an unexpected touch of gallantry — but this performance went with the grain of the music. Fine in itself, it just felt a little too anticlimactic after the power of Bartók. A case could be made for always playing the works in a variety concert in chronological order, which here would have put the Brahms first. Then it could have been taken on its own terms, and Sibelius and Bartók would have been heard for what they intended to do, which was to break out of the 19th century.