Christian Tetzlaff is a frequent and welcome visitor to Boston. His recital yesterday afternoon at Jordan Hall represented the fourth time he has appeared on the Celebrity Series of Boston since 1991. It was therefore surprising that the hall was just a little more than half full, especially for a concert that featured two virtuosos playing some of the greatest and most popular works in the violin-keyboard repertoire. Perhaps our Boston “spring” weather was the cause of the low turnout. The driving rain and cold wind certainly made staying home a more comfortable alternative, although less rewarding than hearing a concert by two superb artists like Tetzlaff and his pianist Lars Vogt, who was making his Celebrity Series debut that afternoon.
The professionalism and musical camaraderie of these two artists were obvious from the moment they came onstage, but a few problems surfaced throughout the concert. One concerned the balance between piano and violin, which was not ideal, at least from where we were sitting (i.e., center orchestra). The violin was often covered by the piano, which was played with full stick. This could be explained by an overly bright Steinway, but the problem was exacerbated by the fact that Tetzlaff’s violin playing was often too soft. The dynamic of piano frequently became pianississimo under his bow, and some phrases ended so quietly that one could barely hear the notes at all.
There were also some stylistic problems, particularly in the opener, Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in B-flat Major, K. 454, including some marked differences of opinion about the execution of ornaments. There was, however, no disagreement in their interpretation of Bartok’s first violin sonata, a piece that is as fresh and challenging today as it was when first composed almost 100 years ago. Tetzlaff and Vogt gave this monument in the duo repertoire a virtuosic treatment. The tempos were vigorous, and both performers obviously reveled in the vintage “Bartokian” dissonant harmonic language, and his use of rhythmic accents that evoked the folk melodies the composer knew so well.
The duo’s performance of Anton Webern’s Four Pieces for Violin and Piano, Op. 7, each movement not more than a minute in length, was full of insight, passion and brilliance. Webern has his passionate defenders and equally passionate critics. Some find the extreme brevity of his music off-putting and curious. Others, such as his teacher and mentor Arnold Schoenberg, described Webern’s music as “a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a breath.” I think we’ll go with Schoenberg. Webern’s work is complex, profound, beautiful and concentrated, much like one of those remarkable ivory rosary beads from the middle ages, in which are carved all the stories and characters of the Bible within a sphere just 3 inches in diameter.
Unfortunately, some dynamic and balance problems resurfaced with the concluding work, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 30, No. 2. There was certainly plenty of sturm und drang (“storm and stress”), entirely appropriate for a piece written in C minor, a key that Beethoven often used for great drama and passion (think the “Pathetique” Piano Sonata, op. 13, the second movement from the Eroica symphony and the Fifth Symphony), but Tetzlaff still cut his phrases short by ending them too softly. He used a much warmer sound in the Adagio cantabile, however, and it was good to hear him project more in this movement (he is a great violinist, after all), but the tempo of the Scherzo was simply too fast to allow violinist and pianist to not only play the music, but also play with it. However, the last movement Finale: Allegro-Presto was thrilling Beethoven, and the two encores from Dvořák’s Sonatine in G Major, Op. 100 added a touch of charm and lightness to the afternoon.