BÉLA BARTÓK / JOHN CASKEN / LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN ECM New Series 2595
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.”
Thomas Zehetmair: “Beethoven’s Fifth is unquestionably a milestone in the symphonic literature. And It occupied a special place in my work with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, whether on our tours or as the climax of a Beethoven cycle.”
Thomas Zehetmair, born in Salzburg in 1961, has recorded extensively for ECM New Series since the 1980s when he appeared alongside Gidon Kremer playing Shostakovich in the Edition Lockenhaus collection. His discography has included some of the mountain peaks of solo violin literature – Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, Paganini’s Capricci, Ysaye’s Sonate and more. As the leader of the Zehetmair Quartet – of which Ruth Killius was also a founding member - he has recorded music of Schumann, Bartók, Hartmann, Bruckner, Beethoven, Hindemith and Holliger. A close musical association with Heinz Holliger is reflected in recordings of the Swiss composer’s Violin Concerto, as well as chamber music (Lieder ohne Worte), and participation in many projects under Holliger’s direction ranging from Zelenka’s Trio Sonatas to music of Elliott Carter and Isang Yun (Lauds and Lamentations). Zehetmair and Ruth Killius have also recorded in duo for ECM on Manto and Madrigals, with music of Holliger, Bartók, Scelsi, Skalkottas, Maxwell Davies and Rainer Killius: The two performers play with total control, commitment, and intelligence. What would seem to be a rather esoteric niche of repertoire becomes here a satisfying portrait of music from the last century to our current one", wrote Fanfare.
In his double role as conductor and violinist, Zehetmair has led the Camerata Bern in recordings of Schönberg, Veress and Bartók and the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris in performances of Robert Schumann’s music. (“Thomas Zehetmair gives the troubled and soulful Violin Concerto the love it deserves” – The Guardian).
Founded in 1958, the Royal Northern Sinfonia has gained a reputation as one of the leading contemporary chamber orchestras. Thomas was its artistic director from 2001 until 2014, and today is the orchestra’s conductor laureate.
Currently, Thomas Zehetmair is Chief Conductor of Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, as well as Principal Conductor of the Orchestre National d’Auvergne and the Irish Chamber Orchestra