On April 30th, violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Antje Weithaas, dubbed “Violin Virtuosi” by the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, presented a rare concert of duos there. These artists are incredibly well matched, and the results were magical. They were working with a thoughtfully conceived program of little-known repertoire (except for Bartók’s Violin Duets) that included works by Jean-Marie Leclair (1697-1764), Charles-Auguste de Beriot (1802-1870), and Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931), performed in that chronological order, with the Bartók interspersed in two groups. This was a “preview” of the same program they gave at Carnegie Hall in New York the following evening (May 1). The excellent program notes, by New York critic and musician Harry Haskell, were used for both performances
The intimate acoustics and physical setting of the Shalin Liu are of course stunning to begin with. In the water that could be seen beyond the stage, there were no sailboats yet, but rather one lone kayak. The colors of dusk deepened into a black night during the concert. Then the glass wall and stage lights provided reflections of the performers’ backs as they fairly danced and bent into their music, caressing it knowingly.
Tetzlaff has performed in Boston recently in programs of solo violin music, of violin and piano music (with Leif Ove Andsnes), and as a soloist with the Boston Symphony in all three of that concert’s works by Mozart, Birtwistle and Bartók. (The links are to BMInt reviews.) Next we need to hear the Tetzlaff Quartet! We are so fortunate to experience firsthand the wondrous sounds this consummate musician makes with every stroke of his discretely delineated bow arm. As far as I know, Weithaas has not yet performed here, and I hope we can soon look forward to more of her dynamic music making. The real treat was hearing them together — truly together, almost as one instrument, even playing from the same scores. They both use twenty-first-century violins built by Stefan-Peter Greiner of Bonn, although they look very different. Hers is a larger (thicker) instrument built in 2004. His, from 2002, is modeled on a Guarneri del Gesú. They were tuned together to perfection, enabling long sustained unisons. To write such things for just two instruments is a compositional no-no because the overtones are almost bound to conflict — unisons for three or more instruments are OK. But theirs made their dramatic impact with no flinches. The violinists used comparatively little vibrato, even in the big romantic works; rather, the beauty of their music making depended on warm, judicious bowing.
Nevertheless, their performance styles are very different, and this nagged a bit throughout. Tetzlaff’s is impassioned but internal, sometimes seeming even cool and suppressed. Yet the focus is always on projecting the music in such a way that we too are focused on it, and not on him as the artist. Weithaas’s exuberance is almost contagious with her vigorous gestures and facial expressions, which may be engaging to greater numbers of the audience, but is sometimes distracting from the music.
And speaking of the audience, while most sat still in rapt attention, a few members seemed to be quite restless. Those few rattled their seats as they shifted position, dropped programs, and coughed absent-mindedly, even sneezing, an act which can certainly be easily suppressed. We need to get the late critic Michael Steinberg’s classic article from a BSO program booklet back in print. There is something like it available in his For the Love of Music (2006, with Larry Roth): “Less than one tenth of coughing at concerts is caused by bona fide respiratory distress. For the rest, the pianist Claude Frank years ago put it to me very simply: ‘It means one thing: they’re not listening.’ . . . Most coughing comes from inattention or out and out boredom. . . . [T]he cougher . . . is not following the story, else he would not turn his bronchial tubes inside out, fortissimo, at a hushed moment of greatest suspense.”
I haven’t been so distracted in a long time. But maybe that was because these noises conflicted so blatantly with the quality of the concert, the captivating contrasts the shaping of the phrases, the incredibly hushed pianissimos. Yes, back to the music, please! It is appropriate that the concert began with a work by Leclair, the so-called founder of the 18th-century French violin school, who was a dancer as well as a violinist and composer. Written at the height of his career, his op. 3 Sonatas were self-published in Paris in 1730 as engraved by Louise Roussel, whom he married that year; they have been republished with great frequency through 2005, attesting to their popularity. The sixth, in D major, is a classic slow-fast-slow-fast sonata, the slow movements being more or less preludes to the fast ones. In this case the slow movements and the final one make good use of double stops to enrich the texture. The fast tempi were quite rambunctious and jolly, although I’m not sure Leclair would have been happy dancing at that speed.
The first group of Bartók Duos (1931) came next, eight works of short duration with highly descriptive titles capturing various performance styles: “Transylvanian Dance,” “Fairy Tale,” “Burlesque,” “Sorrow,” “Pizzicato” (just that, on both fiddles), “Bagpipes,” “New Year’s Greeting,” and “Arabian Song,” all played in a manner to project the folk characteristics of Bartók’s Hungarian and Romanian sources. The second group of six (after intermission) comprised “Harvest Song,” “Serbian Dance,” “Song,” “Wedding Song,” “Mosquito Dance” (which elicited a chuckle from the audience), and “Romanian Dance,” all tight little jewels. It was in these pieces that the artists were best matched — you almost couldn’t tell who was playing which part unless the bowing was vastly different.
The Belgian composer Beriot was known chiefly as a violin virtuoso, and toured widely throughout Europe. His three-movement Duo concertant in g minor, op. 57, no. 1 (ca. 1840) is one of a large number of such pieces, variously titled, which have long been gone from the concert stage, but because of their difficulty, are sometimes used as teaching pieces. It is clear from the original publication (Paris, 1847), “servant d’introduction à ceux de Viotti” (serving as an introduction to those of Viotti) that this set was written in homage to Giovanni Battista Viotti, with whom Beriot had wished to study twenty years earlier. Nevertheless, this one could stand a revival, with its ravishing slow movement in E-flat major sounding deceptively easy with its burbling secondo accompaniment, and its spirited final Rondo ending with a statement of the theme in G major. Beriot was known for basing his work on the technical difficulties of Paganini, but also for his own characteristically melting sweetness, both combined in this spell-binding period piece.
The last work, Sonata for two violins in a minor by famed Belgian violinist-composer Ysaÿe, was by far the most flamboyant and difficult. Tetzlaff, who up until now had assumed the role of violino secondo, now stepped up to primo, but the work was not easy for either of them, or the audience. Its three long movements are hard to grasp, appearing to be a series of disjointed, dense eruptions, sometimes overlapping. The first, Maestoso movement is noted for its abrupt four-note theme, that later appears in a fugal setting, or at least with imitative entries that drift off. The second movement is a bit gentler, but no less meandering. In the third, Allegro vivo e con fuoco, as you can imagine from that marking, no holds are barred. The Sonata, written in 1915 as his playing was beginning to fail from health problems, is dedicated to Ysaÿe’s friend and former pupil, Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. It was not published, however, until 1967, reproduced by Éditions Ysaÿe from the holograph in the Musée Ysaÿe in Liège. Its title translated is, Sonata for two solo violins (emphasis mine)—absolutely an appropriate finale for these two “Violin Virtuosi” of the program.