United Kingdom Lutosławski, Dvořák, Bartók: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Leif Ove Andsnes (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 15.9.2021. (CS)
Lutosławski – Partita for violin and piano (1984)
Dvořák – Violin Sonata in F Op.57 (1880)
Bartók – Violin Sonata No.1 BB84 (1921)
On paper this recital looked interesting: three works for violin and piano linked by Slavic folk influences, moments of powerful Romantic lyricism, and marked, sometimes gritty, rhythmic energy, and distinguished by the diverse ways in which they explore relationships between the two instruments. In practice, the programme – which opened the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s new residency at Wigmore Hall – became a brilliantly conceived and masterfully executed one. The technical assurance of both Tetzlaff and the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes is so absolute that it’s easy to take it for granted; but, we should not … for as the evident virtuosic difficulties that the music presents fade from view so the music’s inner challenges rise to the fore and are elucidated with stunning clarity and confidence.
Tetzlaff brings a strong personality to the music, but he does not so much impose himself on the score as bring its meaning to the surface from within. His tone can be beautifully sweet, his phrases as beguiling as a caressing vocal line, but he has a rich range of hues and textures in his arsenal and employs them with commitment and directness. Andsnes’ accuracy is equally absolute, and this control enables him to be judicious in achieving a fine balance and conversation with the violin, particularly in passages the virtuosity of which might lead to over-emphatic outbursts or domination. Together, in this recital the duo made the complex seems simple as they unravelled the composers’ more enigmatic episodes, revealing in even the most astringent or abstract passages the innate humanity of the music.
I heard Tetzlaff perform Lutosławski’s Partita for violin and piano at Wigmore Hall in autumn 2019, with the pianist Lars Vogt. Perhaps familiarity was a factor, but on this occasion the neoclassical architecture of the Partita’s structure – its three movements connected by two Ad libitum ‘bridges’ – seemed even more clearly defined, and this ‘sureness’ of form was complemented by a tremendous freedom of bow stroke by which Tetzlaff, in the Allegro giusto, etched the rhythms lucidly and shaped the phrases eloquently. The architectural and motivic ‘workings’ in the linking quasi-aleatoric movements were equally crystalline. Despite the unpredictability of outcome, as the violin and piano explore independently of each other with no requirement to strictly ‘coordinate’, there was a strong sense of unity – of destination if not of route. Tetzlaff brought forth the music’s lyricism, no matter how abrasive or unexpected the dissonances and conflicts, nor how quiet the sul tasto pianissimos. The stratospheric wisps at the close of the central Largo cleansed the palette after the movement’s neo-Romantic intensities; the Presto raced with Slavic fervour. The performers made the visceral contests of the Partita feel entirely natural, rather than confrontational.
The Brahmsian warmth of Dvořák’s infrequently heard Violin Sonata in F Op.57 took us back 60 years, and it was lovely to see and hear Tetzlaff broaden his vibrato, relax his shoulders, dig affectionately into his strings, and really ‘open up’ the music for the audience. Just a few minutes into the Allegro ma non troppo and I was wondering why I didn’t know this Sonata, especially as, wearing a fiddle player’s hat, I’ve explored the well-known Four Romantic Pieces, Sonatine in G and, tentatively, the Concerto. Has it been overshadowed by the sonatas of Beethoven and Brahms? I suspect, though, that it was the manner of this performance which made the Sonata feel so beguiling. The first movement immediately introduces one of those Brahms-like rhythmic motifs that will go on to dominate the musical arguments, and Tetzlaff’s incisive triplet gesture was an instant call to attention; indeed, it injected a bravura note, which expanded confidently in the second subject, introduced with forthright directness by Andsnes. There is perhaps an absence of the mystery that one so often finds in Brahms’ opening movements. And, by the end of the movement, for all the cross-rhythms and textural contrasts, it was perhaps the absence of Brahms’ subtleties that most seem to differentiate the two composers’ approaches.
In the Poco sostenuto Andsnes introduced the graceful descending theme, then they duo gradually expanded its scope and contours so that it acquired stature and, briefly, nobility. The contrasting ascending second theme developed in ways which introduced momentum and tension which were only subdued by Tetzlaff’s agile string-crossings which quelled the piano’s thundering, dotted-rhythm octaves and ushered in the recapitulation. The Allegro molto danced spiritedly through the diverse episodes, Tetzlaff’s G-string climbs robust and true, and drove with symphonic drama towards the close.
When the duo recorded an album of Bartók’s Violin Sonatas (both the two Sonatas for Violin and Piano, and that for solo violin) together in 2004, the disc received a Grammy nomination for Best Chamber Music Performance. No wonder. This performance was gripping from the first. The agility and dynamism of both performers was striking at the start of the Allegro appassionato, which had rhapsodic breadth and energy as they violin and path pursued their independent paths with clear-sighted conviction. Andsnes was again able to master the virtuosity of the writing and control the colours and textures, never bombastic even in the most densely voiced, impressionistically ambiguous, or flamboyantly percussive passages. Tetzlaff again strove for lyricism, whether whispering and fluttering mutedly in the crepuscular episodes or playing with full-voiced openness, and in this way we moved convincingly from cool serenity to heated expressivity. However impassioned the music became, the structural pillars never trembled.
The unaccompanied violin at the start of the Adagio soared with silvery purity, a quasi-prayer that grew more luxuriant and adventurous as it was joined by Andsnes’ hymn-like progressions. There was palpable spirit here in the folky drones and pedals, in the air between Tetzlaff’s bow and his string as he launched the exuberant utterances, and finally in the quiet, dissolving melodism of the close. And, then, what fury and fierceness! Andsnes appeared ready to shoot off the end of the bass keys of the Steinway in the thunderous opening of the Finale (Allegro). Each time the driving dance burned itself out, it regathered, resuming excitedly with a fleet spring in its step. Tetzlaff truly danced, foot tapping, bending low, swaying to the percussive pulse: his long locks may have been neatly tied back, but this was the epitome of musically letting one’s hair down.
The élan and insight of the playing throughout this recital were unwavering and superb. The music was ‘lived’. The supreme control never once sounded calculated, only truly certain and absolutely compelling.