Fake no more: These violinist/conductors are the real deal

Three ‘non-phoney’ concerts in Dublin would have had critic Hans Keller eating his words

Maxim Vengerov: Nothing bland in his unassuming, highly articulate playing. Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega

Maxim Vengerov: Nothing bland in his unassuming, highly articulate playing. Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega

 

The music writer Hans Keller (1919-1985), who was born in Vienna and lived and worked in Britain from 1938, including 20 years with the BBC, was a notorious controversialist.

His posthumously published book Criticism opens with his thoughts on a list of what he calls “phoney professions”. He takes a wide swipe, like Donald Trump having a go at “fake news”, except that, unlike Trump, he does present arguments and tries to marshal evidence for his point of view.

His “phoney professions” include the viola player, the opera producer, the conductor, the music critic, the musicologist, the professional broadcaster, the editor, the politician, the psychoanalyst and psychiatrist and the teacher. Keller himself filled a number of these roles, including not just music critic and broadcaster, but also teacher and, briefly, psychoanalyst. 

Here’s a sample of his combative style: “Without exception, whenever an outstanding conductor prepares an opera, you will find him in profound conflict with an allegedly ‘outstanding’ opera producer, although this conflict is invariably glossed over in public. It is a mathematical law that the greater the conductor, the greater the conflict.” 

Then, when he gets to conductors, he writes, “Though it is a few pages ago, the reader will, unfortunately, remember that I have been rash enough to talk about great conductors. I shouldn’t have done: it was intellectual shorthand, used in order not to be deflected from my conclusion about the phoniness of the opera producer.”

Old musical joke

This rather tallies with the old musical joke: “A conductor and a viola player are standing in the middle of the road. Which one would you run over first? Answer: The conductor. Business before pleasure.”

His digs at conducting as a profession run deep. And I inevitably found myself thinking of his barbs at three of last month’s orchestral concerts which were conducted by violinists, each of whom also appeared in the unimpeachably non-phoney role of violin soloist while doubling as conductor at the same time.

Two offered works by Mozart. Pinchas Zukerman (70) played his Violin Concerto No 5 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the National Concert Hall on March 30th, and Thomas Zehetmair (57) played the Violin Concerto No 3 with the Irish Chamber Orchestra at Christ Church Cathedral on March 14th. 

The differences of approach were in the cliched area of chalk and cheese. Zehetmair sounded as if he wanted his Mozart to make a difference, through the urgency of its expressiveness, the overtly interventionist micro-detailing of dynamics and articulation. It would be hard to imagine anything much more likely to upset anyone who regards Mozart as a composer of pretty, relaxing music. 

Thomas Zehetmair: excitable explorer who knew he would encounter rough and tumble on the way to new revelations
Thomas Zehetmair: excitable explorer who knew he would encounter rough and tumble on the way to new revelations

Zukerman was at the opposite end of the spectrum, coiffured, patrician, not a hair out of place. He played as if Mozart were the emperor of smooth classics, everything beautifully turned, the solo lines presented in a way that invited admiration for ease of delivery and sureness of step. The message seemed to be that everything that was to be discovered about the work was being laid out effortlessly for your delight. By comparison, Zehetmair was a sweaty-browed and excitable explorer who knew he would encounter rough and tumble on the way to new revelations. 

Bach concertos

Maxim Vengerov (44) played three Bach concertos with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra on March 29th: the Double Violin Concerto with Irish violinist Patrick Rafter, the Concerto for Oboe and Violin with the orchestra’s principal oboist, Matthew Manning, and, in between, the Violin Concerto in A minor. 

Vengerov is a class act. He eschews the imperturbability of Zukerman and the nerviness of Zehetmair. But there’s nothing bland in his unassuming, highly-articulate playing. The fine detail is laid out in a way that simply doesn’t attract attention to itself. 

He was well matched by Rafter, whose musical poise and technical ease at the age of 27 meant that, even though there was not as much air in his phrasing as in Vengerov’s, there were moments when the two soloists could not be told apart. It’s no small feat to match a player of Vengerov’s calibre in this way. And the clean lines of Manning’s oboe playing also tied in well with Vengerov’s approach. 

Zehetmair’s conducting doesn’t have quite as many rough edges as his playing

When the three violinists stood without their instruments in what Keller would have seen as the “phoney” role of conductor, it was Vengerov who scooped the honours. Virtually everything in his handling of Dvorak’s New World Symphony sounded fresh and unhackneyed.

Less involved

Zukerman seemed less involved in Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis and in Elgar’s Enigma Variations. It was all tastefully laid out until the swirl of Elgar’s 11th variation, after which the music-making rewardingly shifted up a gear. 

Zehetmair’s conducting doesn’t have quite as many rough edges as his playing. He offered two real rarities, Salieri’s Sinfonia Veneziana, a rare orchestral outing for a composer whose reputation now seems to rest as much on his portrayal in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus as on his real-life achievements, and the Symphonic Elegy that Ernst Krenek wrote in memory of Anton Webern – a heartfelt outpouring of grief in 12-tone manner. 

The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s concert ended with Mozart’s Symphony No 29 in A, as astonishingly mature a work as has ever been created by a teenager (Mozart was just 18 when he completed it in 1774). It was here that Zehetmair’s energy seemed to find its best musical match. 

I suspect Keller, who had studied violin in his youth, might have cast aside all ideas of phoniness in the case of this highly varied, and highly accomplished trio of violinist/conductors. 

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