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.