Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Works by Ysaÿe, J. S. Bach, Kurtág, and Bartok, Playhouse, May 9, 2014.

There can be few more authoritative and enterprising violinists in the world right now than Christian Tetzlaff, and just how often do we witness a solo violin recital that puts together works ranging from Bach to Kurtág and produces such a satisfying overall experience?  Very infrequently indeed!   Yet, as we saw in the Vancouver Recital’s closing concert of the year, such was this artist’s awareness of the organic growth of each work, and its unique ‘voice’, that the whole concert simply flowed on with both absorbing integration and compelling magnetism.

While one often admires the compositions of Eugène Ysaÿe for their technically-challenging character, it is rare to feel that they are also profound works.  Yet in Christian Tetzlaff’s performance of the composer’s First Sonata for Solo Violin, I was made much more aware of the strength and integrity of this composition. Part of this was the violinist’s magnificent poise and textural clarity, but it was also the way he judged the motion of this sonata and never brought attention to its virtuoso demands.  Certainly there were shows of passionate thrust in the opening movement, building to strong statements, but just how intelligently the violinist was able to move off these, sustaining intensity while letting phrases quietly fall from these peaks to a more inward musing.  Always there was the awareness of how each detail and moment fit into the underlying pulse.   In the Bach-like following movement, all the triple-stop chording came out decisively but one also noticed how the violinist’s rubato sometimes imparted a gentle dance-like feel to the expression.  The Allegretto, marked ‘Amabile’ certainly was just that, lyrically drawn with almost flicks of delight.  And, indeed, the finale had wonderful strength and concentration.

Christian Tetzlaff has always had a strong association with Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, recording them all for Virgin initially and then for Hannsler.   His approach is generally more ruminative than some, emphasizing subtle dynamic variations and nuance, and playing with generally less vibrato.  I was certainly taken by the expressive searching quality of the opening Adagio, noticing as well that the following Fuga was less incisive, and more flowing, than it often is.  But here the violinist was able to negotiate harmonic complexities so cunningly and again impart an elegant, gentle dance-like motion to many passages.  The violinist seems so acutely aware of how harmonies should ‘sound’ and project.  And what purity of tone he achieves!  The Largo in turn was strikingly quiet and intimate, setting up a strong contrast with a quick and light Allegro finale.

György Kurtág’s ‘Signs, Games and Messages’ (1961-2005) is indeed a model of minimalism, a collection of  ‘diary entries’, each with very few notes sustaining a particular intensity or colour.  Here we heard a small number of these pieces from the full set of 24.  This was fascinating.  Tetzlaff’s control of shading and motion at very soft volumes gave the music progression while at the same time creating a distilled feeling of time standing still.

The famous Bartok Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin is a remarkably demanding work and gave Yehudi Menuhin ‘fits’ when he first saw it.  In some hands, this can be a work with much visceral strength and bite, occasionally verging on the brutal.  But this is not Tetzlaff’s way.  He is in many ways more lyrical and meditative, sometimes pointing to the work’s foundations in Bach.  This lyrical line was noticeable in the opening movement, rightly building to climaxes with fervour and intensity but always retreating from them in a lovely fluid way.  It was really quite remarkable how the violinist could attack passages so vigorously but still maintain an underlying flow.  After a relatively restrained treatment of the Fuga, but with all its little stops and starts brought out with great clarity, it became clear the heart of the work for Tetzlaff was the beautiful Adagio.  Perhaps we might think of Bartok’s ‘night music’ here but, whatever it was, we moved fully to sublime reaches, expressive, withdrawn, with an almost mystical quality at the end.  Starting from the insistent ‘buzz of flies’, the closing movement was then taken home with all the right inflections, motion and purpose.

There are of course many different ways to interpret the Bartok and Bach presented here, but at this concert we just forgot about them.  This was a wonderfully concentrated and involving experience for all of us, witnessing artistry and musical intelligence at the highest level.

© Geoffrey Newman 2014


Christian Tetzlaff Plays Bach