Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Master Lieder Singer For The Violin

On Saturday evening, Joshua and I attended a recital at The New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. In recital were violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

The recital was quite good, and I am very pleased we attended.

The recital was oddly arranged. In order, Tetzlaff and Andsnes played Janacek, Brahms, Mozart and Schubert. A chronological presentation would have been more pleasing, I believe, than this peculiar arrangement. The Mozart was most seriously damaged by its placement on the program.

Janacek’s Violin Sonata is a work of great individuality—it is unlike any violin sonata in the standard repertory, and not simply because it concludes with an extensive Adagio—but a work that is not programmed often. I suspect it may be ungratifying for musicians to play and, further, it is possible that only Moravian musicians can do the work justice.

The Sonata begins with an improvisation for solo violin that serves as introduction to its sonata-form first movement, a sparse, even terse, treatment of sonata form, with undistinguished melodic material that nonetheless is packed with dramatic incident.

The middle movements are conventional—a tertiary nocturne (Balada) and a tertiary scherzo (Allegretto)—before the Adagio finale, which is asked to carry the emotional weight of the work.

The Violin Sonata is not one of Janacek’s finest pieces—he worked on it for over seven years, substantially revising the work twice, before it reached its published form—and the composer obviously had difficulty deciding what he wanted to do with the work.

For one thing, the Sonata is not “all of a piece”. Its four movements are not organically connected—they are more a loose confederation of movements than parts of a coherent whole.

Further, the Adagio, the second movement in Janacek’s original version of the score, does not provide an effective or satisfying conclusion to the work, and this is so even though the Adagio is nowhere near as conventional as the two unremarkable middle movements, which seem to belong to another score.

Only the first movement of the Violin Sonata is from the composer’s top drawer, and reveals fully the startling originality of which this composer could be capable.

Saturday night’s performance of the Janacek was satisfactory, but anyone familiar with Josef Suk and Rudolf Firkusny in this piece was bound to be disappointed. Not only was there no Moravian feel to the playing—the music might have been written by the Hungarian Bartok or the Romanian Enescu, for all the lack of specificity the musicians displayed—but Tetzlaff and Andsnes also seemed unsure where the dramatic and emotional high points of the score were located. Tetzlaff had a surer grasp of what he wanted to do than Andsnes, but there was very little evidence of one master musician inspiring and playing off another, which I found to be surprising given that these two fine musicians have played together for almost two decades and have been close personal friends since the early 1990’s.

All this was righted in the Brahms that followed. Tetzlaff and Andsnes played Brahms third and final (and finest) sonata for violin and piano and, in the best music of the evening, gave the best performance of the evening. Andsnes, especially, came fully alive in the Brahms, for the first and only time of the night, and he and Tetzlaff offered as fine an account of the sonata as I have ever heard in person.

(Suk and Firkusny liked to pair the Janacek sonata with this particular Brahms sonata, too.)

The Mozart after intermission was not on the same high level. Tetzlaff and Andsnes played Sonata No. 25, K. 377, from 1781, a three-movement sonata with an extended theme-and-variations Andante movement that is almost longer than the two outer movements combined.

Tetzlaff tried to do interesting things in the Mozart, offering phrasing of great specificity and exploring the coloristic possibilities of his instrument, but he was not matched in his endeavors by Andsnes, who seemed content to accompany, and only to accompany. In any case, I have never found Andsnes to be a satisfactory Mozart pianist, and he confirmed this once again on Saturday night.

Tetzlaff is an emotionally reticent player of Mozart. His two great contemporary violinist countrymen, Anne-Sophie Mutter and Frank Peter Zimmermann, are emotionally giving in Mozart, probably because the music of Mozart comes more naturally to them than it does to Tetzlaff. Mutter’s and Zimmermann’s Mozart can be sublime if they like an audience.

Unlike Mutter and Zimmermann, Tetzlaff is not emotionally generous in Mozart. He compensates by offering a thoughtful, even analytical, Mozart, which can be almost as pleasing in its own right. He held my full attention throughout the Mozart, even though he lacked the glamour of sound Mutter and Zimmermann bring to Mozart and even though he lacked a satisfactory Mozart pianist to inspire him.

The recital concluded with Schubert’s Rondo In B Minor, D. 895, from Schubert’s last year. Tetzlaff and Andsnes played it like a barnstorming virtuoso vehicle. There was absolutely nothing Viennese about their playing, but the piece can survive as pure virtuoso display, and it survived on Saturday night.

Tetzlaff and Andsnes played two brief encores, both by Sibelius: Danse Champetre, Opus 106, Number 5; and Danse Champetre, Opus 106, Number 2.

Tetzlaff has a small, focused sound. At times the piano overpowered him, and I do not know who or what was at fault: the violinist, the pianist or the hall acoustics (it was our first visit to Jordan Hall, and I have no personal experience of the auditorium’s acoustics).

Tetzlaff plays a modern instrument, and I wonder whether this accounts for the fact that the sheer quality of Tetzlaff’s sound is the least interesting among leading violinists of the day. Tetzlaff is a very intelligent musician, but his sound is a very generic one. He has always reminded me of a fine singer lacking a distinctive timbre, one who is forced to compensate by employing great specificity of phrasing and great mastery of textual utterance in order to make an impact.

In this regard, Tetzlaff is a master lieder singer for the violin—and I am always happy to hear him, at every opportunity.


  1. Andrew,

    I’m happy you enjoyed the recital. I have the Janacek Sonata with Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich on an eight-disc, DG box set, which I bought primarily for the Beethoven and Brahms works. (I like Kremer a lot.) Only the “con moto” is interesting to me. I didn’t know Tetzlaff played a modern instrument; that certainly explains things. Tetzlaff‘s artistry seems to be the “negative” of the artistry of Ms. Brueggergosman: hers is a lovely sound draping an utterly blank slate.

    Speaking of draping garbs and “tabulae rasae”, we arrived home Sunday, and guess what was in the mail box? February’s issue of “The Amphisbaena Whisperer”. By now, Andrew, I am SURE you have that mess with your address all sorted out, don’t you? Josh reported on his blog that you had been depressed lately. So when I saw the article on page two about Austrian fashion designer Georg Groeg, I opined that your receipt of TAW must have been the reason why you began to recover last Wednesday. The story is odd, but amusing, isn’t it? If I’m wrong about you receiving TAW, then for your benefit and also the benefit of your reader(s), here it is (again, forgive the typos):


    Retired Los Angeles Lieutenant Sam Harrison, who was one of the original investigators of the 1967 “kidnapping” of “Nosro”, a giant wooly mammoth from the Culver City Museum of Natural History, announced last December 20 that the famous Hollywood couturier Georg Groeg (“ad astra per acia”), more affectionately known among the host of sartorially obsessed stars as “Palindrome Georgie“, confessed to him on his death bed two weeks before Christmas that it was HE who had engineered the mysterious, short-term disappearance of Nosro in July and August of that year.

    Harrison gave the press conference, the first of two, a double whammy when he then informed the public that Groeg was now under investigation for attempted murder.

    The “Nosro case” was never solved. For almost seven weeks LA County detectives worked overtime trying to figure out how anyone could have pulled off such a crime, which baffled the best magicians in the world, including the great Blackstone, who wrote a best-selling book about the incident: “How I Would Have Done It”, in 1970. A search that even included the ransacking of the prop department at MGM studios came up empty-handed. But the Pleistocene statue “just appeared again” one morning, undamaged, in its original position in the museum.

    Harrison, who retired in 1981, had since become famous himself over the years for outing high-profile gay artists from the closet. In a second press conference held on New Year’s Day, he claimed that his original intent was to extract a confession of a different sort from Groeg, whom Harrison had discovered leading a double life, moving “amphisbaena-like” between genders. (Harrison had scrupulously observed this celebrity in Vienna to be in the exclusive company of women, a finding which astute linguists now say amplifies a bizarre reflection of the duel orthography of Groeg’s surname).

    But that’s when Groeg made his “shocking pronouncement,” according to Harrison, quoting from E.M. Forester’s posthumous novel, “Maurice” : Groeg told him that a prominent lecturer in Tinsel Town had commissioned him to design a complete wardrobe for an upcoming world tour and that he had only “borrowed” Nosro for such a length of time for use as a “couture dummy”. Harrison pressed the dying man to explain how he had accomplished the task, but in the end Groeg acquiesced only to reveal the name of the lecturer, after which, “the hapless man gasped and fell silent.” And so, following the lead of Latvian engineer Edward Leedskalnin, creator of Coral Castle, (now) in Homestead, Florida, Palindrome Georgie took the secret of a miraculous, alleged feat with him to the grave.

    Harrison then pursued his only lead and retrieved an incomplete autobiography from the estate of the lecturer, who had died years before. There, buried in the chaotic scribbling of the memoir the lecturer identified his private tailor as the young man who had attempted to murder Rudy Vallee by throwing a grapefruit at the musician during a gig in Los Angeles.

    After Harrison’s second press conference, sales of Rudy Vallee’s autobiography, “Let the Chips Fall”, soared astronomically. It has now been confirmed that as early as January 15 of this year A&E paid an undisclosed, seven-figure amount to commission a television biography on the adolescent years of Palindrome Georgie. Film rights have even landed on the front porch of Stephen Spielberg’s production company, with plans to cast Brad Pitt in the role of Mr. Groeg and Michael Caine co-starring as Rudy Vallee.

    Taw, taw, Andrew,


  2. I really MUST get to work on those Rudy Vallee autobiographies—all three of them—as I am starting to realize that they are one of the cores of the Western canon, known and cited by educated persons everywhere.

    In fact, I am going to have to place the Vallee autobiographies above Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” on my reading list.

    (By the way, have you ever read the book about Mildred Harnack? The book was published several years ago. Harnack was the women whose life Lillian Hellman “borrowed” for the “Julia” episode in “Pentimento”. I’d be curious to learn your thoughts about the book, as I’ve been reading it the last few nights.)

    No, I have not received my February copy of “The Whisperer”, and I am extremely distressed! I fear that someone may be stealing my copy, and I may have to contact numerous federal law-enforcement agencies and ask them to get to the bottom of this matter at once. I want hundreds of federal agents working on this case!

    Dane, do you think I could pick up the music rights to the Georg Groeg story for a reasonable price? I think there may be an opera there—and I know just how to shape it!

  3. And, sometime, explain to me Gidon Kremer.

    I just don't "get" him.

  4. Andrew,

    I saw the film, "Julia," that was based upon the Harnack character, but I never considered reading "Pentimento" because I have always intensely detested this author's world view. "Deep down [Helman] was very superficial". Mary McCarthy of course, was right about the woman, and any volume written by her "stinks" to me, even from across a crowded library. I suppose, therefore, that I've avoided the bio about Harnack so far because of the subject's mearest association with Helman. I understand it's unfair of me. I would be interested, however, in your thoughts when you finish the book. Maybe you will change my mind.

    I despised Kremer in the 1980's. I thought he was weird (I still do, actually), and I thought at one point that there was something seriously wrong with his psyche. Moreover, his stage demeanor, though sometimes entertaining, was off-putting to me. I clearly remember thinking to myself, "Why would Alfred Schnittke write this for HIM?" But over the last couple of years I gradually began to see some things through the veneer. Like me, it may take you twenty years to hear him differently.

    Andrew, you know if the average reader of books is presented with a copy of a Rudy Valee biography and copy of "The Magic Mountain" which of the two he or she will choose, right? Of course, you also know that that's the whole point of the TAW article. "Der Zauberberg" is on my top ten - make that eleven - list of favorite books. It's depth of symbolism is only equaled perhaps by Orson Welles' heretofore unpublished memoir,"Being Really, Really Fat without Hardly Eating Anything at All".

    I wonder if John Adams reads The Amphisbaena Whisperer?


  5. There I go again. That's HELLMAN, not Helman.


  6. I doubt that John Adams reads anything. Anyone who has ever read an interview with Adams knows that a Harvard education was entirely wasted on the man.

    I, too, have seen the film “Julia”, but I have not read “Pentimento” or anything else by Hellman. She was a deplorable figure, and I hope she is rotting in hell. Mary McCarthy was not the only Leftist figure that had Hellman’s number—Diana Trilling, among other Hellman contemporaries, also saw through that vile woman.

    I am almost finished with the Harnack book, and I plan to write about it when I am done. (It is a very bad book, by the way—and Harnack was a very foolish woman.)

    “Weird” is the very word that describes Gidon Kremer to me. I have never been able to listen to him. That said, I happen to like his recording of the Rorem Violin Concerto on Deutsche Grammophon.

  7. And, permit me to add, that I believe that the average reader would take a pass on both Rudy Vallee AND Thomas Mann.

  8. Leif Ove Andsnes is the one I can’t figure out. I’ve heard him three, four, five times. I hear nothing special in him. He has no personality. Even his recordings have no personality. I’ve come to the conclusion he’s a product of publicity by Virgin and EMI.

  9. I don’t think he’s Wilhelm Kempff, but Andsnes’s playing sometimes has great freshness.

    He was not on peak form Saturday night.

    Outside Russia, the young generation of pianists is pretty unimpressive.

    For instance, have you heard Jonathan Biss? He has NOTHING in his arsenal, nothing whatsoever. I cannot understand why he even has a career. I last heard him in recital in late 2007, and his playing and musicianship were utterly laughable.

    He’s Lang Lang without the miraculous fingers.

  10. Biss stinks. I heard him do some really lousy Mozart here (24th—?). Amateur. He’s being pushed on the public by his stage mother, Miriam Fried, and Leon Fleischer, who taught him. He’s also butt ugly, which doesn’t help.