Stunning solo playing from Christian Tetzlaff at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Nielsen, Bach, Bartók: Christian Tetzlaff (violin). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.5.2022. (CS)

Christian Tetzlaff (c) Giorgia Bertazzi

J.S. Bach – Partita No.2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV1004
NielsenPreludio e Presto, Op.52
Bartók – Sonata for solo violin, BB124

The musician who performs a programme of music for unaccompanied violin confronts opportunities and risks: the demonstration of virtuosity – as the violin takes flight from its own melodies and creates an astonishing illusion of polyphony through subtly voiced double-stops, rolling arpeggios and melodic fragments dispersed across registers – inherently involves the potential exposure of vulnerabilities, both technical and emotional.  The spotlight may be relished but there’s nowhere to hide.

At Wigmore Hall, Christian Tetzlaff placed J.S. Bach’s D minor Partita, and especially its celebrated chaconne, at the core of his programme.  The Partita was listed as the opening item but in fact Tetzlaff chose to begin with Nielsen’s Preludio e Presto Op.52, moving Bach to the centre of the programme both literally and spiritually.

Nielsen’s tour de force was composed in 1927-28 for his future son-in-law, Emil Telmányi, and published in the same decade as the six solo sonatas by Eugene Ysaӱe and Paul Hindemith’s two works for solo violin.  The composer himself had been a rank-and-file violinist in his early years, but the Preludio e Presto demands a virtuosity far exceeding Nielsen’s own technical competence.  As well as varied, complex multipl-stops, left-hand pizzicatos and artificial harmonics, the soloist is required to extend and contract their hand within glissandi and execute a diverse range of bow strokes and articulations, including arpeggiations and bariolage.  The sounds created are often bracing and sometimes strange.  The musical challenges are numerous and knotty, too, as Nielsen engages with the Baroque aesthetic in a highly experimental way.  The theme and variation form is exploited to juxtapose extreme contrasts, rhythms are endlessly deconstructed and the harmonic language is provocatively chromatic and idiosyncratic.

Tetzlaff relished the intellectual, technical and expressive challenges posed by Nielsen the Modernist.  A stylish flourish into the opening of the Preludio signalled that this would be a performance characterised by confidence and intensity.  The Preludio had a lovely freedom and air of fantasy: lyrical voice-leading, delicate fluttering, bright resonance and colourful dynamism alternated, forming a restless aural canvas, but the pianissimo harmonics at the close quelled the energy into philosophical contemplation.  In the Presto perpetual motion tussled with expressive intensity, an indomitable wild joy repeatedly released then becalmed.  The control with which Tetzlaff switched between different types of energy was stunning, always allowing the music room to breathe, even as ricochets sprang from tranquillo episodes, then gave way to saltarellos, then arpeggiation, then glissandi.

There was a Romantic richness at times, elsewhere strong détaché strokes created surges of drama, while whispered spiccato and glistening artificial harmonics spun threads of magic.  If the Preludio e Presto is evidence of Nielsen’s inextinguishable desire to experiment and learn, even in his late years, then it released Tetzlaff’s own creativity in a performance that demonstrated true dedication to the score allied with personal invention and expression.

J.S. Bach’s three Partitas distinguish themselves from the three solo Sonatas in their reliance on dance forms.  In a sense, despite the sophistication with which the various dance movements are wrought, they have their origin in folk-fiddling and improvisation, and in this performance Tetzlaff captured something of that air of spontaneity, but less of the dance spirit, I felt.  Tempi were generally quick, pushing forwards.  The rhetorical pointing of the upbeat-plus-accented note at the start of the Allemande was followed by fluid spinning of the unceasing semi-quavers, the underlying harmonic structure seeming more prominent than the melodic lyricism, a pianissimo dynamic making shadows of the repeated sections.  Bow and fingers were astonishingly fleet in the live-wire Courante, while a quiet, sustained intensity underpinned the Sarabande as Tetzlaff eschewed vibrato and shaped the phrases with tenderness and delicacy, taking immense care over the form and colour of the chords. The Gigue was tight and bright, the flashing runs racing onwards as if propelled by a magical force.  Watching Tetzlaff employ just an inch of hair in the middle of his box, whipped by the slightest flick of his wrist, to produce such a rich, powerful tone was a violin lesson in bow technique.

The second half of the programme presented the Sonata for Solo Violin that Béla Bartók wrote for Yehudi Menuhin during World War II.  If Tetzlaff had seemed to seek the widest possible range of dynamics and tone when playing Bach’s Partita, then Bartók’s Sonata positively demands such diversity of texture and tonal colour, and here, at times, one had to remind oneself that one was listening to a solo violin.  Tetzlaff’s union of technical command and rhapsodic invention seemed to mimic the composer’s own engagement with his Baroque models, his Sonata paying homage as it does to Bach’s sonatas for solo violin, through its four-movement form and sequence of fugue, lyrical slow movement and presto finale.  The opening ‘Tempo di Ciaccona’ of course alludes to Bach’s Chaconne, and the flexibility and freedom with which Bartók references, fragments and integrates motifs was echoed in the suppleness and strength of Tetzlaff’s playing, the leaps between registers and across strings demonstrative and powerful, the chaconne fragments articulated with, by turn, rich lyricism and gritty bite, pianissimos whispered like secrets.

The intricacy of the voicings in Fuga was beautifully rendered, with impressively clean and focused piano multiple-stops.  A sonorous G-string ascent initiated the extended lines of the Melodia in which the ppp passages had a yearning quality that was almost ghostly at times.  The reminders of the Chaconne in the Presto seemed inevitable, so sure and confident had been the path that Tetzlaff had forged through the preceding movements.  There were moments of abandon but of refinement too.  Bartók’s sonata is one of the most challenging works in the violin repertoire.  Playing from memory, Tetzlaff made us aware what a masterpiece it is.  Throughout the recital, the German violinist brought intellect and intuition together to make music of compelling creative energy.

It was back to Bach for the encore: the Largo of the C Major Sonata.  The violinist Andrew Manze has remarked that Bach’s Italian title, Sei solo, implies not just ‘six solos’ but also, ‘You are alone’.  When Tetzlaff’s bow finally came to rest, it almost seemed wrong to applaud and break his rapt solitude.

Claire Seymour

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