MUSIC / Double exposure for focused playing: Nicholas Williams on two concerts by the violinist Thomas Zehetmair at the Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
DESPITE the gilt-edged packaging of today's top artists by the record companies, the truth remains that hearing them perform live is the best guide to their work - and if possible, hearing them twice. For performers and audience alike, a double exposure remains an unusual luxury; but the violinist Thomas Zehetmair had the chance on Friday and Sunday, making his London recital debut as the first artist in the Wigmore Hall's 1993 chamber music series.

Tall, blond, broad-shouldered, he could have been a late arrival for last year's Scandinavian festivities; in fact, he was born in Salzburg, 30 years ago. Many prizes and international engagements later, he has established himself among the top performers of his generation. His platform manner has natural authority; no impassioned contortions, just a poise and control that make performer and instrument move as one. Even at this stage in his career, his enemies might be less nerves, presentation and technique than staleness, contractual small print and jet-lag. But this Wigmore outing, covering two centuries of violin music, showed him to be a performer of spontaneity, warmth and imagination.

He began with an early Violin Sonata in F minor by Mendelssohn, suggestive of Mozart and middle-period Beethoven but already displaying the composer's command of sonata proportions. Neither here nor in Beethoven's C minor Sonata, Op 30 No 2, was Zehetmair's tone entirely faultless. Perhaps it was a matter of loosening up. By the time he came to the third item on the programme, Schoenberg's Phantasy, Op 47, his right-arm technique looked, and sounded, noticeably freer. But in the Beethoven, the strain brought an added tension to a work not noted for its relaxed qualities, the martial second subject more hurried than crisp, and the scherzo and trio also vigorously overdone. In contrast, tension in the majestic slow movement brought total agreement with his accompanist, Lisa Smirnova, playing together and staying together as the music dissolved, in a characteristically Beethovenian way, into progressively smaller note values.

Their performance of the Schoenberg was by turns heroic and intimate: not everyone prefers this kind of chromatic music played like latterday Liszt and Brahms, soaked in rubato. But it worked handsomely, and formed a highly effective contrast to the two works by Ravel that concluded the recital.

Tzigane, the concert rhapsody written for Joachim's great-niece, Jelly d'Aranyi, Zehetmair played from memory, making light of the extraordinary left-hand pizzicato and other acts of technical daring. In Ravel's Violin Sonata technical brilliance is the chief means by which the composer distinguishes between the violin and piano: his thesis was that the two were incompatible; the sense of the form comes in the gradual working-together of the two. In the opening Allegretto, violinist and pianist hold each other in a perfect balance of opposites, finding common ground only in the movement's final paragraphs. The Blues that followed, and the concluding Perpetuum mobile, were packed with flavour and flourish.

Come Sunday morning's coffee concert, Zehetmair was left to his own devices in a pair of unaccompanied works. By now thoroughly relaxed and intimate with the audience - sufficiently to allow a few slips pass almost unnoticed in a selection of Paganini Caprices - he let the Courante and Sarabande from Bach's D minor Partita sum up the florid, eloquent part of his nature. Even-toned and mellifluous throughout, the concluding Chaconne was an expressive tour de force. There was plenty of virtuosity here, yet all built on a foundation of intense, thoughtful playing.