Though he had participated in a handful of excellent chamber music recordings with Gidon Kremer in the mid-80s, German violinist Thomas Zehetmair made his solo recording debut in 1989 with a polished and persuasive account of Brahms' violin concerto. Nearly 20 years later, Zehetmair returns to the Brahms concerto, this time as conductor as well as soloist with the Northern Sinfonia on Avie Records. And while his performance here is not without its problems, it is in some ways even better than his first. Zehetmair is not the polished player he was in the past, and there are many passages here of surprising roughness. Zehetmair seems more concerned with passion than polish, and his performance is almost wildly expressive. Take his extraordinary cadenza in the opening movement: while still ostensibly in the style of the period, Zehetmair takes the music past late Romanticism to the edges of early Expressionism.
The real problems with the performance are not with Zehetmair's playing, but with the orchestra's playing. For all its obvious and ardent enthusiasm, the Northern Sinfonia of Newcastle upon Tyne is too small in size, too scrawny in tone, and too slapdash in ensemble to tackle Brahms' orchestral writing without a conductor who is entirely focused on the task. It seems to be flying by the seat of its collective pants, and the developments and climaxes sound shaky, almost haphazard. And while it's true that this performance of the original version of Schumann's D minor Symphony with Zehetmair on the podium is tighter and more cogent, it's also true that because of its size, it can't really compete with the finest recording of the work in its original version: the Kurt Masur/London Philharmonic performance on Teldec. Recorded in deep, full sound at the splendid Sage Gateshead concert hall located on the banks of the Tyne, this recording will be of interest especially to students of contemporary takes on cadenzas for established works.