United Kingdom Lutosławski, Beethoven, Kurtág, Franck: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Lars Vogt (piano), Wigmore Hall, London 12.11.2019. (CS)
Lutosłwaski – Partita for violin and piano (1984)
Beethoven – Sonata in A Op.30 No.1
Kurtág – Tre pezzi Op.14e (1979)
Franck – Violin Sonata in A
No recital presented by Christian Tetzlaff is a predictable occasion. Tetzlaff seems to delight in infinite questioning, reflection and re-consideration, and the results are often startling and striking. When I heard the German violinist perform Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, in 2015, I found his performance idiosyncratic and enthralling in equal measure. Similarly, this concert at Wigmore Hall with Tetzlaff’s long-term musical partner, pianist Lars Vogt, was both inspiring and infuriating: inspiring because it made me hear familiar works anew (as well as introducing me to the unfamiliar), and infuriating because I couldn’t sleep for reflecting on what I’d just heard!
There is a surprising blend of absolute seriousness of intent with a gentle lightness, even humour, in the manner of Tetzlaff’s communication. The virtuosity is undoubted, but it is lightly worn, the music rather than the man at the fore. Such was apparent in the opening work, Lutosławski’s Partita for violin and piano, which etched its somewhat abstract arguments with a quiet understatement, the violin’s cool tone occasionally blossoming in passages of neo-Romantic lyricism which, with hindsight seemed to look ahead to the music we would hear later in the recital. Tetzlaff and Vogt managed to make the complexity of the composer’s micro-rhythmic challenges sound simple and, in the two Ad libitum sections which separate the Partita’s three main movements, entirely natural. The insouciance of the ending of the opening Allegro giusto seemed tailor-made for Tetzlaff’s penchant for spinning a sound that is barely more than a whisper, but which still ‘speaks’ with assurance, while the perpetual movement of the Slavic-flavoured Presto with its crunching double-stopped chords and rushing, dancing quavers was explosively exciting. Unpredictability was complemented by an invention which Tetzlaff and Vogt relished.
Beethoven’s A major sonata (Op.30 No.1) had been programmed to open the recital, but the duo reversed the order of the first half items, and from the first bars of the Allegro this decision made perfect sense. For, the ‘spirit’ of Lutosławski’s aleatoric counterpoint and minute rhythmic manipulations seemed to be present, as Tetzlaff and Vogt emphasised the asymmetry of Beethoven’s phrases and the elasticity of the relationship between the piano and violin, the scalic lines gently tugging this way and that, warmed by slight, sudden surges then retreating, as the violin’s ascents tapered to a wisp. At times the flexibility of the dialogues acquired an almost theatrical quality, with some unusual accenting catching me unawares and making me hear familiar phrases and episodes afresh.
The duo’s approach to the Adagio molto espressivo also surprised. Where I hear a serenely unfolding song, stretching forward with lyrical inevitability, transferred seamlessly from the piano to violin, enriched by the momentum of the accompanying dotted rhythms which rock and propel, Tetzlaff and Vogt seemed intent on eschewing any Romantic ‘indulgence’ such as Beethoven’s molto espressivo marking might prompt. This is a movement, I feel, which invites the listener into its easy embrace: there are brief rhetorical flourishes, but the assured return of the theme provides calmness and certainty. Yet, if the spirit of this movement seemed more troubled here, the phrases sometimes a little rushed or insufficiently spacious, then the sun came out in the Allegretto con variazioni. Tetzlaff enjoyed the mercurial airiness of the folky theme and once again the duo emphasised the music’s rhythmic playfulness. First impish then suave, proud then nonchalant – the assertive running triplets of the piano’s bass ‘answered’ by the violin’s cheeky pianissimo up-bow chords – the variations swept along breezily. The minor-key episode against surprised me with some unexpected voice-leading and accents, but it’s good to hear old friends in new clothes!
Franck’s Violin Sonata is certainly one such ‘old friend’ – one of the most well-known and esteemed sonatas in the violin repertory. Predictably, Tetzlaff and Vogt had new things to say, beginning with the ‘prelude’ that they offered to Franck’s Allegretto ben moderato. The spontaneous spirit of György Kurtág’s Tre pezzi made them a perfect ‘up-beat’ to the sonata’s first movement, which followed segue. Tetzlaff’s bow scarcely seemed to move as it coaxed infinitely sustained pianissimo open strings to accompany the piano’s lyricism in Öd und Traurig; the violin’s harmonics teased in Vivo; while the gentle regularity of the violin’s diminishing melody in Aus der Ferne seemed to be reborn in Franck’s gentle intimations.
Again, Tetzlaff and Vogt – seemingly determined to emphasise the restlessness of the sonata rather than its Romanticism – challenged me with their interpretation. I liked the tempo they chose for the Allegro, which was not overly fast and furious, the phrases extending with surging warmth rather than tempestuous, and which seemed more exploratory than assertive. But, I found both the Allegretto and the Recitative-Fantasia too pressing, the lazy rhythms of the former not quite consoling enough, the poetic freedom of the violin’s discursiveness in the latter avoided. There was some striking playing, though, most especially towards the close of the third movement, where Vogt’s soft, sweet triplets provided a tender bed on which Tetzlaff rested the violin’s reflective roaming. The finale Allegretto poco mosso did not so much enchant with its majestic lyricism as incite and stir with its probing questioning. Tetzlaff’s light bow strokes made the opening theme sail rather than shine, and I liked the momentum that this created, though the violinist’s frequent bow changes seemed to undermine the breadth of the melody at times. Throughout there was compelling urgency but I did not experience the sense of catharsis that the structural climaxes usually bring: the piano’s thundering chime of descending chords at the ecstatic peak of the development section didn’t assert its supremacy in a way that might make one’s spine shiver. This was an exciting and dynamic performance, but one that I felt neglected the Romantic grandeur of the sonata’s poetry: reflecting afterwards, it was as if we’d been offered Larkin instead of Hughes.
The unpredictability continued with the duo’s encore: the third movement from Brahms’s D minor Violin Sonata. Oddly, the balance of intellect and passion that I missed in the Franck was now in evidence, the restlessness of Brahms’s rhythmic games – despatched with deft clarity by Vogt – complemented by Tetzlaff’s firm, warm tone. And, just when I was reflecting on the strangeness of performing this short movement ‘out of context’, as it were, the duo came back on the platform to acknowledge the audience’s vigorous applause, and then, with a quick nod and smile to each other, launched gleefully into Brahms’s final movement.
For the first time during the evening the players seemed really to relax into the music, a smile of pleasure illuminating Vogt’s face, and I recalled that the last time I had heard the duo performance at Wigmore Hall they had presented all three of Brahms’s sonatas, which they have also recorded twice, live in 2002 and again in 2016. Here, at last, there was genuine expressive warmth, and I began to wish that they would turn back to the opening pages and play through the whole sonata. As it was, Brahms’s confident surmounting of musical mountains of his own making proved an uplifting final word.