Friday, February 15, 2013

Homage a J.S.B.

Christian Tetzlaff came to town this week and put on a recital that I'd been looking forward to for nearly a year: works for solo violin by Ysaye, Bach, Kurtag, and Bartok.

Tetzlaff is an awesome violinist, a champion of new and recent music who absolutely killed me in the Brahms concerto the first time I heard him. But in this program, I came away more awed than moved by a curiously unsatisfying program.

With one obvious exception, or maybe two, there wasn't anything wrong with the program. Tetzlaff has  absolutely bulletproof technique, from dead-on intonation to fast fingers to an immense dynamic range to the stunning range of timbres he can produce. Still, something was missing.

Let's work backwards, from what obviously did not work. The last movement of the J.S.Bach Sonata in C Major, BWV 1005, was a disaster, played at such a speed and with so little rhythmic inflection that I had to consult the score to discover what the time signature was. It's in 3/4 time, that is, waltz time. Now, the waltz is not a dance Bach would have known, and the rhythms within each measure don't immediately suggest 3/4, but Tetzlaff ought to have made something out of the meter and the rhythmic conflicts in the music. But he didn't. He rushed headlong through the music, and while it was quite a technical display, it was completely lacking in grace.

The rest of the Bach was much better than the last movement, and his structural handling of the giant second-movement fugue - it dwarfs the other movements - was outstanding. But the entire piece was afflicted with rhythmic rigidity in a way that made the phrasing feel, well, frozen. It was well-thought-out and entirely from the head.

This sense of rigidity was less of an issue in the Kurtag miniatures and in the Bartok sonata. Those works are more rhythmically and metrically varied than the Bach, and my sense was that Tetzlaff cut loose more in the fiery, and sometimes folk-based, Bartok than in the rest of the program. Still, there were times in the Bartok when I wished he were even closer to its wild and improvisatory spirit, where there were more musical chances to be taken.

I was thoroughly delighted with the Kurtag pieces, tiny amuse-bouche works playing out just a single idea, much like his Jatekok for piano, excerpts of which I heard Leif Ove Andsnes play last year. And I loved the opening Ysaye, a work entirely new to me. It is gorgeous, especially the rich and ghostly first movement. But it did not have much charm, and I couldn't help wondering what it would have sounded like with a French or Russian violinist playing, someone with, perhaps, less technique, but more heart and more grace.

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