in: Reviews

January 31, 2009

Unusual, Thrilling Program by Tetzlaff and Andsnes Brought Ringing Cheers

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Boston is not likely to hear such a thrilling piano-violin concert for a very long time. Both Christian Tetzlaff, violin, and Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, are world-class artists, known everywhere as outstanding soloists, and it is a credit to the Celebrity Series that we could hear them as an excellent duo team.  The audience filled Jordan Hall on January 31 to capacity and was well rewarded.

The program was itself unusual, the more so to have begun with the Sonata by Leoš Janácek. Janácek (1854-1928) has become better known in recent years, especially through performances of his operas and occasionally his orchestral music, but he still strikes listeners as something of an enigma. He is a Czech nationalist, but hardly in the Germanic Czech line of Smetana and Dvorák; his closest kinship with that tradition is rather like Mussorgsky’s in Russia, with a naturalistic vocal style very like recitative that certainly penetrates his instrumental music.  Janácek’s melodic writing is epigrammatic, with short fragments, cadenza-like gestures and a tendency toward repetitive accompaniment-like patterns. He likes to write a repeating pattern like a tremolo, not between two notes but with four in rapid succession, over and over again. He has a curious fondness for particular keys, especially A flat minor, which he often writes without the seven-flat key signature but just with accidental signs strewn throughout the score. This Sonata, completed in 1922, is from late in Janácek’s career. I had not heard it before, but I was several times reminded of one of my favorite works of his, the strange and beautiful song cycle called The Diary of One Who Vanished (1919). The performance was expressive and entirely convincing, with the demurrer that it might have been better to lower the piano lid; several times the piano seemed overbalancing when the violin was muted, even though playing forte.

Next came Brahms’s D minor Sonata, op. 108, composed in 1888, his third and last work for this combination. Some would call it Brahms’s most successful violin sonata because it is so compactly constructed, which cannot always be said about the more popular G major (“Rain”) Sonata, op. 78 (1879) and A major (“Prize Song”) Sonata, op. 100 (1886). But it was delightful to hear the lyrical approach in this work, especially in the lovely lullaby that begins the slow movement. Tetzlaff has the most remarkable pianissimo I have heard from any violinist in recent years — the tone is full and singing even when you know that it is barely audible. At full volume, he had no trouble balancing perfectly with the piano’s heavy artillery, as in the Presto agitato finale, and Andsnes’s sound was always clear.

If Brahms came to write violin-piano sonatas relatively late in his career, it was the other way around for Mozart, whose earliest sonata, KV 6, dates from 1764 when he was 8 years old. He wrote 26 more of them in all, and the F major Sonata, KV 377 (1781), is a fully mature example, composed around the time of his opera Idomeneo (KV 366). In the program note I learned that it was published as part of a set of six sonatas “for piano or harpsichord, with accompaniment of violin,” a title which fails to do justice to the violin’s equal partnership; one can understand it by noticing that the piano always initiates the principal thematic material. This primacy of place doesn’t in the least hinder the perfect balance in the dialogue. There are three movements: a vigorous sonata-allegro, a set of variations in D minor, and a “Tempo di menuetto” finale in which the dramatic and lyric meet perfectly as friends. This is a great work, but it is not often heard, and still less often in such a loving performance.

Nobody mentioned that this concert took place on Schubert’s 212th birthday, but to hear his Rondo brillant in B minor, op. 70, D 895 (1826), was thrilling. It is one of two virtuosic pieces written for the violinist Josef Slawjk; the other is the great Fantasy in C major, D 934 (1827). The proper title of Rondo brilliant should be “Introduction and Rondo,” because the opening figure of the Andante introduction, with heavy chords in double-dotted rhythm, reappears in faster tempo in the rondo proper. Schubert’s rondos tend to be sprawling in form, and this one was no exception, but if there was weakness one didn’t perceive it at all in the intense and dramatic performance. Much of the drama resides in the harmony as well; the rondo begins with an assertive repeated-note pattern in B minor, soon followed by a second theme in B major with a poignantly contrasting sadness. In the third statement, this second theme returns unexpectedly in D major. The alternation of minor-major moods persisted throughout the extensive development, through many changes of key with no diminution of energy. It was a splendid conclusion to the concert that brought ringing cheers.

Yes, there were even two encores, both of them “Danses champêtres” by Sibelius, probably from his op. 106 of 1925, brief, lightweight and satisfying, and tossed off by the players with a smile that brought a chuckle from the audience.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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