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 musuc, 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.
In the late 1980s Thomas Zehetmair studied the composer’s own manuscript in the Berlin Staatsbibliothek and concluded that the printed edition of the work then in circulation contained numerous errors and deviations from Schumann’s score. Zehetmair made many corrections, also bringing phrasing and dynamics back in line with Schumann’s manuscript.
“If you want to realise Schumann's true emotional and intellectual intentions, don't change anything,” Zehetmair advised, in an interview with Classic FM. “He certainly knew how to achieve what he wanted. Every change takes away some of the music's depth.”
Gisela Schubert: “Performances such as the present one by Thomas Zehetmair reveal how urgent and convincing the impact of Schumann’s original version can be when the performances enter into the spirit of Romantic poetry.”
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”.
The Zehetmair Quartet’s recording of Robert Schumann’s string quartets nos. 1 and 3 was described as “revelatory” by Gramophone magazine, which praised its eschewal of surface gloss in favour of uncovering these works’ profound beauty.
As conductor Thomas Zehetmair has maintained close associations with a number of orchestras. From 2002-2014 he was music director and chief conductor 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 Zehetmair as its next principal conductor, effective September 2016.