Between Romanticism and modernism: Christian Tetzlaff and Kirill Gerstein at Zankel Hall

United StatesUnited States Various: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Kirill Gerstein (piano). Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 6.4.2024. (ES-S)

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Kirill Gerstein © Steve J. Sherman

Janáček – Violin Sonata
Kurtág – ‘Tre pezzi’, Op.14E
Bartók – Violin Sonata No.2
Adès – Suite from The Tempest
Brahms – Violin Sonata No.3 in D minor, Op.108

Creating the harmonious sound of a string quartet requires years of collective practice, whereas forming a duo seems comparatively straightforward. If planets are properly aligned, rare or unique collaborations can produce wondrous outcomes. This potentiality came vividly to mind when I attended a recital by Christian Tetzlaff and Kirill Gerstein in Zankel Hall.

Tetzlaff performed and recorded the Brahms Sonatas with Lars Vogt, the pianist and conductor who tragically passed away less than two years ago. The violinist’s heartfelt rendition of the lyrical and nostalgic cavatina in Brahms’s late Violin Sonata No.3 could easily be perceived as an homage to his late collaborator. The blend of Tetzlaff’s warm yet not overly effusive interpretation of the late-Romantic score with Gerstein’s more analytical approach resulted in a harmonious and effective performance: they had clearly considered how to highlight specific details while still preserving the overarching narrative. Tetzlaff and Gerstein masterfully conveyed the underlying tension in the first movement’s development section and the dynamic contrasts of the Finale, where the rhythmic pulsations of a tarantella intertwine with a recurring chorale motif. The delicate Scherzo served its role well as a contrasting preamble to the tumultuous Presto agitato.

Before the Brahms, the duo gave the New York première of Thomas Adès’s Suite from The Tempest, a ten-minute-long composition they first presented in 2022 at the Kronberg Academy in Germany, where both Tetzlaff and Gerstein teach. The suite, a sequence of character studies, is based on Adès’s opera score of the same title and is marked by sharp contrasts in mood and texture, ranging from assertive to eerie, from bell-like chords to barely uttered pianissimos. Typical of the composer’s style, which floats between tradition and modernism, the music is intriguing to listen to but not fully soul-engaging, despite the exquisite musicianship and valiant efforts of the two interpreters.

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Kirill Gerstein © Steve J. Sherman

Before the interval, Gerstein and Tetzlaff explored the evolution of modernism in Eastern Europe through three examples. If Kurtág’s brief ‘Tre pezzi’ can be seen as having the conciseness of Emil Cioran’s aphorisms, vanishing before one fully grasps their meaning, both Janáček’s and Bartók’s sonatas stand as substantial early-twentieth-century efforts to step out of Brahms’s shadow. Both composers draw inspiration from Debussy and the folklore of their respective countries, leading to distinctly different results.

Janáček’s non-traditional sense of tonal hierarchy and his lack of interest in motivic development translate into brief melodies marked by constant repetition, and into rhythms that attempt to emulate speech patterns. Gerstein and Tetzlaff immersed themselves with gusto in this foreign world, imbuing the fragmented lines, full of tension and gloominess, with great beauty.

The lyrical thematic material in the Ballada, the sonata’s second movement, shows that Janáček’s attempt to steer clear of Romantic effusions was only partially successful. The second theme with its soothing nature reminiscent of a lullaby and the supporting piano textures that enhance the violin’s melodious excursions could easily grace any Romantic composition. The same comment could apply to the expressive passages in the second movement of Bartók’s Sonata No.2. Despite its modern harmonic language, it contains clear hints of Romanticism.

Composed in 1922 during a period when Bartók was the closest to modernistic tendencies, the score also looks at Stravinsky and the Second Viennese School for inspiration. Bartók eschews traditional form and tonality in this composition. The interpreters are faced with musical statements where melodies lack tonal direction, chords seldom conform to major or minor classifications, and a steady pulse is elusive or secondary to the piece’s expressive demands. Commencing with a dream-like, improvisatory incantation, the two-part work gradually transforms into a swirling and tumultuous dance, punctuated by occasional pensive, contemplative segments. The challenges faced by the violinist are immense, necessitating both technical prowess and the ability to uphold a high level of tension and intensity. With Gerstein’s support, Tetzlaff successfully navigated this formidable test with brio.

Throughout the evening, it was wonderful to admire how the two musicians adapted their tone and technique to meet the varying demands, infusing each bar with naturalness. The numerous shifts in tempo, dynamics and rhythm were deftly managed, always sounding neither constrained nor random.

Edward Sava-Segal

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