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Thomas Zehetmair’s insight into Robert Schumann’s music and his capacity to illuminate its emotional centre were very much in evidence when he recorded Schumann string quartets with the Zehetmair Quartet for an ECM New Series disc which collected numerous prizes, including the Edison Award, the Gramophone Recording of the Year Award, the Diapason d’or de l’année, and the Prix Caecilia.
As with the chamber music, so with the symphonic works. On this recording, made at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in February 2014, Zehetmair does double duty as both soloist and conductor, leading the Orchestre de chambre de Paris in compelling performances of Schumann’s Violin Concerto and the Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra, as well as the First Symphony. Zehetmair has spoken of the “simultaneous spontaneity, power and delicacy” which inform Schumann’s symphonic compositions and these are qualities which he draws forth from the Paris orchestra in these beautifully-realized performances.
In the liner notes for the present disc, Giselher Schubert describes the genesis of the compositions and of Schumann’s very different frame of mind during the writing of the First Symphony in 1941 and the Violin Concerto a dozen years later. The Violin Concerto and the Phantasy were written for Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853, but only the Phantasy, the solo part of which was designed by Schumann as a “written out improvisation” to match the flair of Joachim’s performance style, was premiered in the composer’s lifetime. Joachim and Clara Schumann shared reservations about the playability of the Violin Concerto and, after Schumann’s death, resolved not to publish it. The piece then had to wait more than 80 years for its first performance, in Berlin in 1937.
Thomas Zehetmair: “The concerto has gripped me since I first encountered it. But back in the early 1980s there was only the Schünemann edition of the score available. As worthy as it was, it was nevertheless full of errors. So I meticulously studied the original manuscript in 1988 in the Berlin State Library, and recently contributed to the new Breitkopf ‘Urtext’ edition. Where the concerto was once considered a poor relative in Schumann’s oeuvre, today no one doubts that the work belongs to the greatest that has been written for violin and orchestra.”
Zehetmair made a well-received studio recording of the concerto for Teldec in 1988, but notes that “experience naturally plays a major role in performing such a profound piece, which I have now lived through in numerous performances. This has left many traces.”
Deep engagement with the structure and proportions of the music runs like a thread through Thomas Zehetmair’s distinguished and unusually varied musical career as soloist, quartet leader, and conductor.
In his ECM recordings, he has explored some of the peaks of the solo violin repertoire (Paganini’s 24 caprices and Eugène Ysaÿe’s solo sonatas), duets (with violist Ruth Killius, on Manto and Madrigals) and, as soloist and conductor, repertoire that includes Bartók, Schoenberg, Veress, and Heinz Holliger. Zehetmair has spoken of virtuosity not as an end in itself but a means to an end: a mastery of all the expressive possibilities that enables access to “the purpose and relationship of every single note in the overall musical architecture”.
As conductor Thomas Zehetmair has maintained close associations with a number of orchestras. From 2002-2014 he was music director and chief conductor of the Northern Sinfonia, and now has the title of conductor laureate with the orchestra. He became an artistic partner of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota in 2010. In June 2015, the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur announced the appointment of Thomas Zehetmair as its next principal conductor, effective September 2016.
He will be performing the Schumann Violin Concerto at the London Proms on August 1.
CD booklet includes notes by Giselher Schubert in German and English, and photos from the recording.

© Studio Svengali, October 2023
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