Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 is a work of extreme emotional sweep. There's sweet rapture. There's desolation. There's dark ecstasy. The soloist's part is also insanely hard to play, and, until this week, the San Francisco Symphony hadn't dusted off the piece since 2002.
That's when violinist Christian Tetzlaff performed it with conductor Herbert Blomstedt at Davies Symphony Hall.
And guess who's back to play it through Saturday with Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra? Correct: Tetzlaff. His performance Wednesday was a jaw-dropper.
The German soloist can do pretty much anything with his fiddle; that's well-established.
Still, this performance came as a fresh shock, from his opening solo: that massive tone, as if it were being unearthed, as well as his razorlike rhythmic sense and saturating lyricism. It wasn't long before the acrobatics began: Imagine a rabbit shot out of a cannon, grabbing onto a high wire with one hand and swinging (in a blur) in rapid circles.
Even with all the notes, though, there's no clutter in the score, and there wasn't any in this lucid performance by the orchestra.
One heard the clear, bitter rasp of low brass, the buoyant pizzicato of low strings and the haunted tolling of harp and celesta. Tetzlaff's precision lines resounded through the sections, as if he were shooting arrows through a hall of mirrors. Toward the end of the opening movement, he turned his violin into an air raid siren (Bartók composed the piece in 1938) and then devoured the devilish cadenza.
The slow central movement offers a haunted set of variations. Tetzlaff's sound was as solid as bone here. His passagework was at times savage and then quietly, starkly agitated, trailing off like a thought or sustained at triple pianissimo level to the minimalist accompaniment of harp and celesta again. The finale was searing; here was the dark ecstasy. It was a roller-coaster ride for soloist, conductor and orchestra, but it was more than "just good fun."
A thrilling performance on any number of levels, in other words.
After intermission, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra dug into Brahms' Symphony No. 4. There were some rhythmic wobbles, particularly in the opening to the second movement, as well as some woozy notes from the horns. And the screws might have been further tightened in the finale, which didn't quite sustain the emotional escalation that had preceded it.
Yet this was a special performance; the musicians played this familiar work with overflowing fondness and enthusiasm. The massed strings were striking from the first bars: a plush wall of sound, undulating and sheerly sensuous through the soaring melodies. (The cellos were phenomenal.) The scherzo was a joyful upswelling, like the rushing of a river. Principal flute Tim Day's silvery solo in the finale was a "whoa" moment.
Two hours earlier, the concert had begun with Sibelius' "Lemminkainen's Return," the last part of his "Four Legends" suite, inspired by Finnish national epic the "Kalevala." The performance was full of Sibelius' charms and agitations, and his way of evoking the shimmery mysteries of frozen vistas. As good as it was, it soon gave way to greater excitements.
Christian Tetzlaff, soloist, and Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$156; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org