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Posted by gustav at 02:00AM, Wednesday, December 02nd, 2009

Christian Tetzlaff at NEC Jordan Hall, January 31, 2010

A great program and a human performance full of musicianship and drama...

I'm not sure I've ever before heard a recital of all unaccompanied works for violin. The program started, perhaps predictably, with some Bach -- the d minor partita and the C Major sonata. Hard to argue with those selections. In the d minor, Tetzlaff was initially having some (relatively benign) issues with intonation, and seemed unable to produce a big, hall-filling tone. He compensated for these issues by taking full advantage of the dynamic range he did have available, holding the audience on the edge of its collective seat with breathless pianissimo passage after pianissimo passage, and demonstrating a mastery of phrasing and rubato. Tetzlaff takes time when he needs to, but always in the service of the music. (Contrast this with, for instance, the couple times I've heard Gil Shaham perform live, where there are many extra-temporal passages, but they all seem inexplicable, and more evidence of a fundamental inability (or perhaps indifference) to play[ing] in time than some deep-seated musical interpretation.) There's an old saw to the effect that it's easy to get an audience to its feet playing loud music, but it takes true musicianship to do that with quiet passages; again and again, Tetzlaff was able to stop the passage of time, to highlight a key structural point, or a transition from major to minor mode, etc., playing almost inaudibly to a rapt audience. On top of this, in the d minor partita he very effectively demonstrated the dance roots of the forms of the various movements, his playing conveying a strong sense of rhythm and form. Right-hand articulation, generally, was very impressive, with some unorthodox but effective bowing choices; left hand work seemed muddled at times -- trills in particular were difficult to hear clearly -- but the fast passages were, for the most part, accurate and impressive. Tempi overall were faster than usual for this music, and the Chaconne, in particular, was spine-tingle-inducing. The close of the partita was extraordinary -- much quieter than I'm used to hearing, and with, again, a protracted, time-stopping final D.

The C Major sonata was excellent. The surfaciness of tone and lack of clarity I'd been hearing in the partita gave way to an open, ringing sound, with clear contrapuntal voicing and much-improved intonation. The opening movement sounded deceptively simple. The fugue was wonderful. Not as big a sound as I might have expected, but expressive enough in the passage-work, and deliberately voiced. Timing again was exemplary, and the combination of that, the contrapuntal articulation, and the ringing chord- and passage-work was sublime. The final movement was, I think, faster than I've ever heard this on record. Evidently, he'd warmed up since the opening of the concert! Tetzlaff finished a couple of the movements from the Bach pieces with some ornamentation, combined with showman-like gestures. The audience, in response, twittered appreciatively. This was a crowd that knew these pieces well, and responded to such evidence of humor with relief, after the intensity of these ür-works of violin repertoire.

After the intermission came four movements from Gyorgy Kurtag pieces. I've not heard these before; my impression is of Webern-style brevity, and a largely similar-sounding harmonic language, though, admittedly, with a lot more notes in some of them than any Webern piece short of an opera. This music didn't involve any extended technique, but was inarguably 20th Century-sounding, and, like most Webern, somewhat bleak; unlike my image of stereotypical Webern, this was also quite virtuosic and violinistic, with its share of quick, high chords.

Next was the g minor Ysaye. This was, I think, the most intellectually impressive of the pieces on the program. I hadn't before realized that this seems to quote the first 5 notes of the inversion of the subject from the Bach C Major fugue. (Obviously, the Ysaye sonatas reference the Bach unaccompanied pieces in myriad other ways, as well.) Here Tetzlaff demonstrated that he *can* produce a "big," glorious sound on the quadruple-stop chords. Even more so than in the Bach, he used timing to highlight important structural divisions; there was one point in, I think, the third movement, where he finished a long, virtuosic, chromatic/modulatory passage -- then paused, all of us in the audience waiting breathless -- before diving into the truly otherworldly-sounding whole-tone scale passage that followed. Ysaye's sonatas must have sounded as though they breathed the airs of other planets, when they were new.

Last on the program were four Paganini Caprices. My husband thought I was kidding when, before these started, I mentioned he was about to hear some true virtuosity. Again, volume was no longer a problem. Some of the super-high-tessatura passagework was problematic, intonation-wise, but three octaves up on the E string, I'm casting no stones. Overall, it was difficult to clearly hear pitch for much of the fast stuff; I would be hard-pressed to say whether this was because of the performance or the acoustics, never having heard any music going quite so fast in Jordan Hall! Two pieces in, Tetzlaff paused to tell the audience that there was a chill onstage, and his fingers were starting to hurt, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could go on. It's tough to say whether this was for real, or just showmanship, given that the last two caprices were, if anything, even faster, and more accurate than the first two. He's certainly a dramatic performer, between the purposeful rubato, the articulation, the shockingly wide dynamics, and the way he moves onstage. The audience was almost instantly on its feet afterwards.

Tetzlaff answered the question I'd posed to my husband before the recital started -- "what do you do for an encore, when the last thing on the program is a Paganini caprice?" -- by playing the Gavotte from the Bach E Major. This was a clear and light sort of palette cleaner, strong and solid, and with a wonderful ritard for the final phrase. He came back onstage for a second encore, and played another of the Kurtag pieces. Again, this was virtuosic, atonal in an early-20th-Century-sounding way, with a fair amount of high, shrill, difficult left-hand blocking (executed perfectly), before another breath-bating, quiet finish. The program overall was impressive in the connections -- Bach to Ysaye is clear, but then demonstrating that some of the alien-sounding chromaticism in Ysaye was really presaged by about a century with the chromaticism in the Caprices is fascinating. The Kurtag seems to come from a different musical tradition entirely, albeit one where bariolage and quadruple-stops still define violinistic virtuosity. But ending on a 20th-Century atonal movement -- that takes balls. Kudos to Christian Tetzlaff. I need to check out many more of his recordings!

I'm left wondering what it was that I loved so much about his playing. The Bach pieces didn't strike me as showy in terms of technique, and certainly revealed some shortcomings -- but were ultimately very, very satisfying. I guess the musical decisions were clearly deliberate, and coincident with my own musical predilections. There was no overt showiness for its own sake, and the rubato and accelerando didn't strike me as self-serving. Instead, this was just deeply musical playing. The sound wasn't big or warm and golden in a Gil Shaham sort of way, but, from the Bach C Major on, it was big enough, often clear and ringing and deliberate, with literally unique utilization of dynamic range, in my experience. Some of the quiet work was just amazing, and made for that much better contrast with the big, important structural points in the C Major and the Ysaye. Tetzlaff was a pleasure to watch and hear -- dramatic, highly musical playing, combined with entrancing body language -- through two hours of grueling solo performance. I'm starting to wonder where he sits in the pantheon of Best Living Violinists. I've yet to hear Perlman, Kennedy, or Hilary Hahn live; I've been impressed the couple times I've heard Mutter, but need to hear her in something other than a warhorse or the forgettable Andre Previn concerto. Tetzlaff clearly knocks Gidon Kremer, Gil Shaham, and probably also Josh Bell and Midori out of the running. Regardless, this was definitely one of the best concerts I've heard, with a fascinating, unsafe, and difficult program, and literally edge-of-my-seat excitement.

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