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A Duo Says Hello

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After hearing violinist Christian Tetzlaff in Rockport a year ago in a stunning all-solo Bach recital, I vowed never to miss another of his concerts. I had known of him primarily through the many recordings he had made with his longtime friend and pianist, the beloved Lars Vogt who died in September 2022. How does one carry on after such a piercing loss?

Fortuitously, Tetzlaff began collaborating with the tremendously gifted pianist Kirill Gerstein, and on Sunday at Jordan Hall, they made their first appearance together as a duo for The Celebrity Series of Boston, which had presented  Tetzlaff six times since 1991. Judging by the hall’s resounding applause after each piece, they achieved a major success. The entire recital held his listener enthralled.

Leos Janáček’s (1854-1928) commenced work on his passionate and lyrical sonata Violin Sonata in 1914 and returned to it intermittently from 1916 to 1922. It made its debut in April 1922. Technically, this is his number three, but its two predecessors (from 1880) were either lost or destroyed. The first performance abroad took place in Frankfurt in 1923 with Paul Hindemith taking violin part. The rather opaque handout essay described the sonata as like “a wandering path, a stroll between two companions delighting in nothing but the journey and their conversation.” Gerstein and Tetzlaff  clearly had embarked on an amazing journey and a brilliant conversation.

In response to a German magazine on the influence of Beethoven’s works upon modern music, Janáček, at the end of his life, replied:

They have never transported me into the realm of ecstasy. I arrived at the bottom of them too soon. And quickly, therefore, they have fallen to the bottom of my soul. In their broad sweep, I felt heavenly clouds; their power and the SUM of their melodies illuminated every single cloud and dispelled every shadow. But, what is the good of it? I want to capture the clouds themselves, I want to sink my eye into the blue of the sky. I want to plunge into the shadow. I want to cry myself into the core of yearning: all this in full intensity. (from “Leos Janáček” by Ian Horsbrugh, 1982)

Tetzlaff and Gerstein (Robert Torres photo)

This rapt listener would describe the duo’s performance of this whole concert as capturing the clouds… this core of yearning with full intensity. 

A deeply moving interpretation of Tre Pezzi (1979) by the beloved Hungarian composer György Kurtág (b.1926) followed. Describing it would take longer than hearing this brief but poignant work. As with every piece on this duo’s program, it could not have been played better. Kurtág’s Tre Pezzi per violino e pianoforte comprises three mini-movements. Reworked for violin and piano from one of three vocal cycles composed in 1979, the piece offers an altered sense of time, space, and sounds, with the violin using a mute throughout. The atmosphere of the three movements is distinctive—from the dream-like first piece to the scherzo second, followed by chant-like third. Kurtág creates here- and throughout his oeuvre — a memorable impression of a different quality of ‘reality.’ 

Bartok’s (1881-1945) Violin Sonata No.2 (1922) ended the first half gloriously. the composer wrote about this sonata’s challenges. “The violin part of the two violin sonatas… is extraordinarily difficult, and it is only a violinist of the top class who has any chance of learning them.” The duo met any difficulties with finesse and their customary virtuosity, rewarding us with a most enjoyable listening experience. Thomas Adès’s new Tempest Suite adds to Gerstein’s history as a champion of Adès; the collaboration that already includes “new music as technically exhilarating in its modern way as any disc of Chopin or Liszt” (Financial Times). The Suite features five selections from his 2003 opera, The Tempest, continuing his custom of making instrumental adaptations of his stage works. Gerstein appeared in a memorable concert with pianist and composer Thomas Adès on the Celebrity Series in 2019. The two sets of miniatures (Adès and Kurtag) were as moving and memorable as the three much longer sonatas.

Finally, Tetzlaff and Gerstein delivered an incandescent, muscular but elegant Brahms’s Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 108. Although he wrote three violin sonatas later in his career, Brahms (the only composer on the program whose name lacks diacritical marks) already began composing for this form as early as age 20. Apparently, he wrote as many as four “additional” sonatas but destroyed them. I had listened to Vogt’s and Tetzlaff’s recording of the Brahms violin sonatas countless times, and as Tetzlaff has said, “Brahms is the composer who connected Lars and me the most all these years, and Brahms allowed us to say goodbye in such a beautiful way.” This relatively new duo’s Brahms traversal said “hello” to a collaboration which seems  like an unusually blessed second marriage. 

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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