United Kingdom Brahms: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Lars Vogt (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 5.12.2017. (CS)
Violin Sonata No.1 in G major Op.78
Violin Sonata No.2 in A major Op.100
Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor Op.108
On the last two occasions when I have heard Christian Tetzlaff perform – as the soloist in Beethoven’s concerto with Daniel Harding and the LSO in 2015 and leaping through the pyrotechnics of Birtwistle’s concerto earlier this year as part of that orchestra’s This Is Rattle inauguration – spontaneity and imminent explosiveness have crackled the air. Here at the Wigmore Hall, however, equanimity and lightness prevailed as Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt presented a meticulous and mellifluous account of Johannes Brahms’s three sonatas for violin piano.
Tetzlaff and Vogt first recorded the three Brahms sonatas in 2002, live at the Spannungen chamber music festival in Heimbach (for EMI), and have reconsidered the works more recently, on the Ondine label. But, I have not heard either recording and so brought no particular expectations or preconceptions to this recital – other than my own, as a violinist whose teacher’s musical predilection could be summed up as ‘anything by Brahms’! I was both surprised and charmed by the elegance, composure and repose which the performers conjured.
Brahms’s three sonatas for violin and piano were written within the space of ten years, from 1878 to 1888 – a time of professional success and personal happiness for the composer – but they traverse different emotional terrain: the first G major sonata is sweetly pensive, the second in A major introduces greater tension and restlessness, while a more tragic drama imbues the final D minor work, the architecture of which is characterised by more monumental structural landmarks. Tetzlaff and Vogt seemed less concerned to draw attention to the differences between the works than to emphasise their shared lyrical beauty and expressive warmth.
That’s not to suggest there was the least hint of monotony, however; the clarity with which every detail was crafted and communicated ensured that one listened with alertness to musical arguments which seemed fresh and carefree. Tetzlaff’s sound is lucid but not particularly large: although ascents up the E-string at times resulted in a sudden blooming of commanding, compelling brightness, the evenness of his timbre across the strings, the soft-edged quality of his G string, and a prevailing restraint in the use of vibrato were more immediately prominent qualities. Despite – almost in defiance of – the raised lid of the Wigmore Hall Steinway, Vogt’s lightness of touch ensured that Tetzlaff never had to force his sound; the two instruments achieved and sustained a perfect balance of articulation and argument. At times, in fact, I’d have liked more assertiveness and presence from Vogt, especially when Brahms’s bass line rumbles with seemingly imminent surges of anguish, but composure and care prevailed – this was to be ‘angst-lite’ Brahms, polish and poise trumping latent and barely repressed passion.
The Vivace ma non troppo of the G major sonata flowed with an easy pliability: the ‘ma non troppo’ (which my teacher insisted was in fact perennially added to Brahms’s scores by Joseph Joachim) was observed, but the movement was propelled by the relaxed reciprocity of the rhythmic give-and-take. Though the intensity and animation increased as the trickling piano cascades acquired greater force, the darker harmonic waters of the development section suggested only the barest disquiet, the surface remaining dolce and settled. We had to wait until the brief coda for an outburst of spontaneous joy and illumination, a snatch of brightness which was all the more vivid for its suddenness. Vogt did not overly emphasise the destabilising effect of the off-beat rocking of the bass’s lowest note at the start of the Adagio, the rich theme resonating with composure and dignity. Similarly, Tetzlaff avoided the temptation to lean on the chromatic inflections of the violin’s first, fragmented entry, instead maintaining an even, equable line. But, it became clear that the players were in fact keeping a tight rein on an underlying tension which would increasingly push its way to the surface, to be released with enormous control through the incisive rhythmic conflicts. This tension dissipated with welcome relief in Tetzlaff’s double-stopped reprise – luxuriantly legato – of the piano’s opening melody, which the violinist subsequently withdrew into the serenest whisper at the close. The shadows evoked in the slow movement were quickly dispelled, however, the clouds releasing only the lightest patter of rain at the start of the Allegro molto moderato as Vogt delineated the tumbling, tapping semi-quavers with sparkling clarity. From then on, the sunshine was unbroken as the movement’s soaring melodies sang with sweetness and elegance.
There was a greater sense of ardour and vigour in the Allegro amabile of the A major sonata, as the opening fragments seemed to be searching for the right melodic route, travelling via some surprisingly silvery double-stopped octaves, then blossoming in songful, syncopated radiance. The rhythmic incisiveness of the contrasting staccato triplet theme offered a pleasing counterpoint to Brahms’s melodiousness; while Vogt’s right-hand gestures were brightly defined the tone remained dolce. It was the following Andante which impressed me most in this sonata, though, not just for the beauty of Tetzlaff’s opening theme, but even more for the way the Vivace interpolations – dancing with light grace – grew so naturally from and into the expansive richness of the Andante sections. The deep consideration which the musicians had obviously given to this movement’s structural design was both striking and telling. Tetzlaff crafted the quiet G-string theme which commences the Allegretto grazioso with a gentle assurance which was sustained throughout, and supported by remarkably delicate and expressive playing by Vogt who had the full measure of Brahms’s incessantly varying rhythmic and figurative explorations.
The D minor sonata was darker-hued but the inherent drama never swelled into turbulence or turmoil. There was a quiet brooding quality in the violin’s first theme as it stretched and reached, then broke off, turned back, began again, ever searching; and in the piano’s sparse syncopated descents and cross-rhythm reiterations. But, flashes of brightness were quickly quelled and the edgy energy of the contrasting second section, during which Vogt’s low ostinato tolled softly, was contained within a prevailing pianissimo, never in danger of breaking free. There was relaxation, though, in the deeply expressive Adagio in which Tetzlaff’s double-stopped thirds fell with lachrymose beauty from the climactic heights, welling and ebbing, perfectly tuned. I was surprised by the long bow strokes Tetzlaff employed at the start of the Un poco presto e con sentimento, almost as if there was no rest between the separated crotchets, but it made sense when the section was heard again, later in the movement, where the violin’s pizzicato made the recollection a striking contrast. There was a Mendelssohnian ‘elfin’ quality about the piano’s scurrying here, and I became increasing aware that within the ‘consistency’ that I initially observed, the players were creating a remarkable variety of dramatic mood. This continued when the Presto agitato burst forth with an angry tarantella whose rough energy established a dynamism which swept through to the final bars.
Encores by Brahms – the Scherzo which the composer contributed to the collaborative F-A-E Sonata – and Dvořák closed a captivating recital of imaginative insight and compelling musicianship.