'I think what Beethoven as a piano player would love about the fiddle, and that shows throughout the string quartets, is a certain ability of singing that only the greatest piano players achieve, and that only with a lot of fantasy and make-believe. What he’s looking for in the concerto is an even more singing quality and a tenderness throughout the piece that is not a trademark of all of his pieces. You’d be surprised to see that most of my part is marked piano, and even pianissimo. For a violin concerto you would assume it would say: come on, go on stage and tell them how big and beautiful you are. So with the first big concerto of the literature, he’s going a very specific way which is not the way, let’s say, of Brahms and Tchaikovsky and many others. He is a very human soul in this piece.'
Christian Tetzlaff has just finished his final rehearsal at the Barbican with the 50 or so human souls of the LSO who will be joining him and conductor Daniel Harding for Beethoven’s violin concerto that evening. It’s the latest in the series of 12 concertos (and 12 major soloists) that the LSO International Violin Festival is showcasing, and comes hot on the heels of the very Brahms and Tchaikovsky, courtesy of Isabelle Faust and Nikolaj Znaider, that Tetzlaff mentions.
Being the final rehearsal, a three-hour session during which the whole programme is run through – tonight that includes Brahms’s 80-minute German Requiem – there is not the time to spend on details. All of that will have been sorted out a couple of days earlier in the orchestra’s rehearsal space up the road at LSO St Luke's. That means everything from the overall approach to the piece and how it changes character from one moment to the next (something that Tetzlaff is particularly keen on emphasising in this concerto and that really comes across in his performance) to the exact speed of each movement (they generally opt for flowing tempos) and to the way the music is phrased and articulated. The process will have been helped by the fact that conductor and soloist have worked together before. 'With Daniel, we have probably been at this piece for 20 years together, so I don’t have to do much convincing with him and neither him with me.'
For the dress rehearsal, however, things are much more focused. 'Usually, not having much time in the morning, it’s a very concentrated thing of listening, Daniel taking ideas from me and me from him, and me listening to the woodwind solos and they listening to me so we are tied together closely. It is not yet the feast of playing your heart out all the way even though I really do enjoy every rehearsal, particularly playing this piece.'
Tetzlaff stresses the importance of listening, even in the long orchestral opening. 'They set up all the characters of the movement. If they were very different, my entrance and everything I play after would sound like a correction. It’s the best or the worst in the sense that I am totally reliant on the characters that are played by the orchestra.'
As the players settle in to their places, Tetzlaff darts round the back of the orchestra to have a word with the timpanist, Antoine Bedewi. He will have a crucial part to play, not only in setting the piece off with its famous repeated Ds, but popping up in the middle of the cadenza too for a spritely duet with Tetzlaff (who adapted the cadenza from one written for piano by Beethoven himself). It’s a rare moment in the spotlight for a timpanist and his orchestral colleagues show their appreciation during the rehearsal. Tetzlaff too will acknowledge his immaculately judged contribution at the end of the evening performance.
The rehearsal under way, soloist and orchestra play through each movement, at the end of which one or two comments are made, chiefly about balance – the relative loudness and quietness of different parts of the orchestra – now that they are in the big Barbican Hall. Steps have already been taken to allow the soloist prominence by cutting the number of orchestral string players on the platform. But even they will have to work extra hard at keeping in the background, not least in a quiet pizzicato passage in the second movement. Tetzlaff plays his almost birdsong-like part with such fragility that they must play infinitesimally quietly so as not to break the spell. It can be a tricky, nerve-wracking passage to execute, not so much plucking the strings as touching them with the fingertips. So if you’ve ever wondered what your fingerprints are for, now you know.
In the end, Harding ends the rehearsal a few minutes early, despite having had barely an hour to spend on the piece. This being Sunday lunchtime, the players quickly disperse for the afternoon, leaving Tetzlaff plenty of time to gear up for the challenge ahead. 'It’s a big challenge because you have to go on stage and not be assertive,' as he puts it. 'This one is the biggest challenge of them all.'
Toby Deller is a freelance writer and musician. His work has been published in Classical Music magazine, The Guardian, The Strad, Music Teacher and Early Music Today, and he has been the LSO's live blogger for the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition in 2012 and 2014.
The LSO International Violin Festival continues until 28 June at the Barbican Centre and LSO St Luke's. We'll be getting to know the stars of Violin Festival on the LSO blog throughout the Festival, so keep checking back to read our latest interviews and behind-the-scenes stories. Find out more about the Festival at lso.co.uk/violinfestival.
Photo at top of page by Georgia Zepidou, originally posted on Twitter