Intensity aplenty from a husband-and-wife team

Ruth Killius, Thomas Zehetmair: Casken, Bartók, Beethoven


The Strad Issue: April 2023

Description: Intensity aplenty from a husband-and-wife team

Musicians: Ruth Killius (viola) Royal Northern Sinfonia/Thomas Zehetmair (violin)

Works: Casken: That Subtle Knot. Bartók: Viola Concerto. Beethoven: Symphony no.5

Catalogue number: ECM 4858391

Why it should have taken ECM nine years to release its recording of Thomas Zehetmair’s final concert in charge of the RNS will likely remain a mystery. There is, in any case, no residual sign of an audience, even in the electrifying and rhythmically radical account of Beethoven’s Fifth, yet no shortage of atmosphere either.

The Northumbrian composer John Casken wrote That Subtle Knot as a sinfonia concertante for Zehetmair and his wife Ruth Killius. The solo lines are long and overlapping, underpinned by tidal pedal-points, and off-kilter tonal harmony that feels gratefully written and satisfyingly new. Zehetmair always wears an aura of intensity around him as a performer, whether with baton or violin in hand, and Casken’s first movement, though marked ‘Calm’, still draws from him edgily committed bowing, even while his tonal range admits less aggressive contrasts of light and shade than before.

Perhaps that’s the nature of his musical partnership with Killius, or the demands of tonal matching in a piece where violin and viola continually complete one another’s thoughts. Either way, the thread of conversational intimacy is carried on by their partnership in Bartók’s Viola Concerto. Even the more tenuous stretches of Serly’s completion leap off the page here. Killius shapes the long first movement with a folksy familiarity and a warm, speaking tone, and this recitative-like quality extends through the brief but rapturously sustained Adagio, as though Bartók were returning to his Transylvanian farmstead roots one last time.


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