in: Reviews

February 1, 2010

Four Strings: Infinite Possibilities

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It takes a great deal of talent and an impressive dollop of chutzpah to stride across an empty stage with just a small violin and proceed to fill a large hall with music. At least a solo pianist has an imposing and multifaceted beast of an instrument for an onstage companion, and cellists a wide-ranging, almost human-sized musical counterpart. German violinist Christian Tetzlaff used his deceptively diminutive instrument and prodigious musical skills to envelop the confines of NEC’s Jordan Hall in a complex web of sound on Sunday, January 31, 2010.

In addition to the technical and psychological demands the solo violin places on performers, its relatively narrow musical palette poses even more of a challenge to composers. The genius of Johann Sebastian Bach was more than up to this challenge. His works for the instrument seem almost to defy logic: how can a single melodic line, with the occasional double-stop, sound so rich, so contrapuntal? The first half of Herr Tetzlaff’s program was devoted entirely to the music of Bach, specifically Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004 and Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005. These two works are part of a set of six in which the odd-numbered pieces are sonatas; the evens, partitas. The Teutonic creator-recreator duo of Bach-Tetzlaff proved to be a powerful one: from the first bar, the music was mesmerizing. Tetzlaff’s introspective style drew the listener in; his smooth bowing, clear articulation, and delicate pianissimos helping to breathe life and complexity into the deceptively simple single line. His serious demeanor was belied by his dancelike dips and gyrations as the music flowed out of him. The final movement of the Partita, the Chaconne, has got to be one of the most profound examples of Western music ever created. A testament to its profundity are the numerous transcriptions that have stemmed from this single melodic line, including full orchestrations. Prior to plunging in to the depths of this movement, Herr Tetzlaff quite deliberately paused and gathered himself. He then took us on an emotional rollercoaster featuring all manner of double-stopping and sophisticated bowing. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a bow malfunction in the form of an errant horsehair, which led to some intermittent squeakiness. It certainly did not detract from the powerful overall effect of the piece, however. The sonata was somewhat jauntier in character, ending with an Allegro assai that sounded like a good old-fashioned hoedown, fingers and bow flying.Yee-haw, that boy can sure play the fiddle! This first-half performance precipitated some vociferous hooting and hollering from the large and appreciative audience that had braved the midwinter cold.

The second half showcased music by György Kurtág, Eugène Ysaÿe, and Niccolò Paganini: a veritable smorgasbord of diacritics! Four pieces by contemporary Hungarian composer Kurtág (“Perpetuum mobile,” “Hommage à J.S.B.,” “Doloroso,” “Zank—Kromatisch”) were a late and worthwhile addition to the program and got things off to a tangy start. Extremely brief, playfully acerbic, whimsically disconsolate, these musical vignettes (or, in this case, violinettes) defy description. Hiccup and you missed them. The Hommage sounded rather like Bach on controlled substances; the Zank was itchy-scratchy-buzzy. Ysaÿe’s Sonata was certainly more traditional with its late Romantic passion, though it was a bit fragmented melodically and seemed to consist of a great deal of virtuosic flourishes that didn’t quite hold together. Certainly no fault of the performer, however.  Four of Niccolò Paganini’s caprices (Nos. 16, 6, 15, 1), from his set of 24, Opus 1 were almost frightening in their technical ferocity, and this listener’s ear could scarcely keep up with the cascade of rapid-fire notes. Interestingly, prior to the penultimate piece, Tetzlaff was moved to stop and explain to the audience that there was such a cold draft onstage he was finding it difficult to perform! The show must go on, however, and he soldiered admirably ahead, with his virtuosic bowing making the final caprice sound like the flutter of hummingbird wings. He was rewarded for his efforts with a warm and effusive standing ovation, and, cold hands be damned, he in turn rewarded us with two contrasting encores: Bach’s sweetly pellucid Gavotte en Rondeau from Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006, and one more Kurtág piece: In memoriam Tomas Blum, a haunting and plaintive miniature.

In less capable hands, 90 minutes of solo violin music runs the risk of becoming austere and somewhat monochromatic. The immensely talented Christian Tetzlaff, with the help of some immensely talented composers, amply demonstrated the startlingly broad emotional and technical range of this restricted musical medium. As I sat in awe listening and watching his pyrotechnics, an image came to mind: Tetzlaff and his near-exact contemporary, fellow violinist Joshua Bell, performing together. Bell and Tetzlaff:Dueling Violins ~ could it happen?

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: here.  He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.

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