Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Of The Violin

For most of the last 130 years, the Russian School of violinists has dominated world stages.

With the advent of Anne-Sophie Mutter, Frank Peter Zimmermann and Christian Tetzlaff, all mature artists by the early 1990s, the Russians were dethroned: German violinists had seized the mantle, and have continued to rule the realm for the last quarter century. (Maxim Vengerov, a Russian, the only genuine competition for Mutter, Zimmermann and Tetzlaff, has never returned to full-time concertizing since his 2007 sabbatical—he claimed he was suffering from burnout—during which he sustained a freak career-threatening injury.)

Mutter, Zimmermann and Tetzlaff are unique: all three are blazing virtuoso players; and all three are among the most gifted musicians of our time, irrespective of category. The three German violinists render most other living violinists irrelevant.

Tetzlaff may be the most intellectual of the three—in both a good and a bad sense.

Tetzlaff is not prone to the flights of inspiration that often characterize Mutter and Zimmermann performances. Tetzlaff is a very deliberate, calculating musician—nothing he does is unintentional—and his performances are planned to the nth degree. When Tetzlaff performances are found wanting, the charges invariably are lack of spontaneity and lack of passion. Such criticisms most often arise in Tetzlaff’s concerto appearances in standard repertory. Even in the Beethoven concerto, the most intellectual of mainstream violin concertos, Tetzlaff is often lambasted (Tetzlaff has received extremely negative notices for his performances of the Beethoven the last few years).

For a world-renowned violinist, Tetzlaff also lacks a unique sound. To most ears, Tetzlaff’s sound is generic, and lacking in color and richness—which I ascribe to Tetzlaff’s use of a modern violin costing a mere $30,000. Tetzlaff is the only international-level violin player before the public today that does not play an instrument made by the great 17th-Century and 18th-Century violinmakers—and, in that regard, I believe Tetzlaff is making a mistake (Tetzlaff claims historic instruments are counterproductive in contemporary repertory, which he plays often and well).

I have always likened Tetzlaff to a great lieder singer, a singer renowned not for the voice itself but for the use the singer can make of the voice. To my ears, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf had a more-or-less unremarkable white voice—yet Schwarzkopf had in her arsenal the most sophisticated shadings, the most profound command of text and musical line, and such a deep understanding of the 19th-Century and Early-20th-Century lied, that the quality of the voice itself became largely immaterial. Tetzlaff, I believe, is a comparable figure: he is the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf of the violin.

Last evening, my parents and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear Tetzlaff in recital, a presentation of the Schubert Club. Tetzlaff’s pianist was Lars Vogt.

Josh and I last heard Tetzlaff in concert in March 2012 playing the Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 with the Minnesota Orchestra. (We had used my parents’ tickets that night, as my parents were vacationing in France.) Josh and I last heard Tetzlaff in recital in January 2009 in Boston, with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes.

Tetzlaff was on stunning form last night; in fact, I thought he was on fire. I have never heard Tetzlaff to better effect—it was one of those rare nights in which an artist’s concentration was TOTAL and ABSOLUTE. Tetzlaff was so fine, last night’s concert was probably the concert of the season in the Twin Cities, much like last season’s Daniil Trifonov recital was the Twin Cities concert of the season for 2012-2013.

Tetzlaff programmed three violin-and-piano sonatas: Mozart’s final violin sonata, No. 32, K. 454; Bartók’s Violin Sonata No. 1; and Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 7. Tetzlaff was magnificent in each one.

Tetzlaff also played five excerpts from a György Kurtág composition for solo violin, “From Signs, Games And Messages”, written between 1989 and 2004, one of countless Kurtág pieces bearing that same title. (There are Kurtág compositions for piano, piano duo, solo viola, solo bass and string trio, all bearing the title, “From Signs, Games And Messages”.)

That the Bartók was exceptional came as no surprise: Tetzlaff has been the world’s finest Bartók violinist since Tetzlaff was in his early twenties. Tetzlaff understands the angularity of Bartók’s writing, as well as the barbarity—and the lyricism.

I had not expected the Beethoven to be so fine. Tetzlaff was a touch detached, even a touch fierce, but his ultra-detailed articulation—the widest variety of attacks, the most precise-yet-fluid separation of notes (incredible to hear, near-impossible to bring off)—carried the performance. Normally I would find such a performance cold and clinical, but last night the masterly articulation formed the foundation of a rewarding interpretation.

The Mozart was the surprise of the evening. I have never thought of Tetzlaff as a Mozart player, yet his Mozart last night was fully convincing. Tetzlaff’s Mozart was abstract Mozart a la Thomas Beecham, not gemütlich Mozart a la Bruno Walter and not dramatic Mozart a la Otto Klemperer—and Tetzlaff’s Mozart succeeded beautifully as abstract Mozart.

We’ve had more than a little live exposure to K. 454 in recent years. Julia Fischer programmed K.454 in Saint Paul in February 2012. Josh and I heard Pinchas Zukerman play K. 454 in Boston in November 2010. Mutter concluded a Saint Paul all-Mozart recital in November 2006 with K. 454.

Mutter reigns supreme in Mozart. Zukerman can be very fine in Mozart if caught on a good day (Zukerman had been in exceptional form in Boston—but not in the Mozart). Fischer’s Mozart was a work-in-progress.

In the Mozart, Tetzlaff had little to concede to Mutter other than the absence of a ravishing sound—for which he compensated with quicker-than-usual tempi and a sense of urgency.

I have never been an admirer of Vogt, a wayward pianist and a wayward musician, but last night Vogt’s work was exemplary, perhaps because Vogt was working with a soloist not likely to indulge in tempo fluctuation and manipulation of phrase length. Vogt, working with Tetzlaff, was more satisfactory than Andsnes (who I believe was having an off-night in Boston)—which suggests to me that Vogt should work with disciplined musicians on a more frequent basis.


It is always thrilling to catch an artist on a great night.

Tetzlaff has never disappointed me, but last night he operated on a higher plane than during my previous encounters with his work.

One never knows, entering a hall, what to expect. One can catch Bernard Haitink on a dull night, over and over, to the point of asking, in exasperation, “Whatever accounts for this man’s exalted reputation?”—only to encounter him on a great night, and suddenly comprehend, “Ah, now I see what everyone is talking about!” and be prepared to forgive him anything.

My parents heard Isaac Stern a dozen times, and caught Stern only once on a good night—but what a great night it was! Stern played sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Prokofiev, and blew the lid off the roof. For encores, Stern played entire movements of Mozart and Prokofiev sonatas until Stern said he couldn’t go on anymore because his fingers were giving out. After the passing of four decades, my parents still talk about that magical Stern recital.

And yet on every other occasion in which my parents heard Stern, they found him to be deeply disappointing.


Saint Paul’s Pioneer Press needs to employ a new stringer.

In his review of the Tetzlaff recital, Rob Hubbard, the Pioneer Press stringer, merely recycled Alan Artner’s Chicago Tribune review of Tetzlaff’s Sunday afternoon recital in Chicago. Reworking Artner took more than a little gall, since Tetzlaff’s Chicago program had been different than Tetzlaff’s Twin Cities program.

There was a full house last night at the Ordway.

In contrast, the Sunday afternoon audience in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, according to Artner, had been a small one.


For us, last night’s recital was the first Schubert Club event of the season.

We had intentionally skipped pianist Jonathan Biss’s Schubert Club recital that had opened the season.

On paper, Biss’s program had been immensely appealing: Brahms’s Klavierstücke, Opus 119; Janáček’s “In The Mists”; Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, perhaps my favorite Beethoven sonata; and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze.

Alas, we had heard Biss before, and we knew not only that Biss was not worth hearing but that Biss was not worth even leaving the house for. Biss, neither a virtuoso nor a “serious” pianist, has literally nothing to offer. We heard Biss play Beethoven and Janáček, abysmally, in Saint Paul in October 2007. I fear Biss, on that occasion, frightened us away from his performances for life; I cringe in contemplation of ever hearing Biss again. (My former piano teacher, who attended Biss’s recent Twin Cities recital, has assured us that Biss was no better last month than in 2007, and that we were wise to have stayed at home.)

Are there any pianists worth hearing today that are not Russian? Stephen Kovacevich is, for practical purposes, retired, as is Ivan Moravec. Krystian Zimerman has become weird (although we heard Zimerman give a decent account of Lutoslawski’s Piano Concerto in Paris in January) and Martha Argerich has always BEEN weird. Murray Perahia has lost it in live performance, at least according to persons whose opinions I respect. Maurizio Pollini is only semi-active. Everyone else, at best, is second-rate.

Besides Evgeny Kissin and Trifonov, who may be counted upon to keep the flame alive?

There is, I believe, no one.

We do not live in an age of pianism.


Yesterday was Josh’s birthday. He turned 30.

We celebrated the event on Sunday evening.


  1. Happy belated Birthday, Josh! And riveting review of the concerts as usual, Andrew. Thanks! :o)

    I've been indulging in today's golden age of virtuoso violinists of late. It's amazing how many amazing fiddlers today hail from (or spent a lot of time growing up in) Germany... and was trained by Ana Chumachenko. :oD I bought Lisa Batiashvili's Beethoven concerto CD a while ago and it's been stuck on my primary playlist ever since. Too bad we won't have her or Julia Fischer or Arabella Steinbacher here for concert next year, but I'm looking forward to Pearlman returning to do the Beethoven in... I think January. Then the opera season starts! Weeee!

    Hope you guys are having a good autumn and keep enjoying great concerts! Looking forward to reading about them. ;o)

  2. Smorg, I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!

    Did you attend the Pizzetti opera earlier this year? You mentioned it, but you didn’t say whether you had attended a performance.

    I’ve never heard “Murder In The Cathedral” and I would like to hear it one day. It must have merit, because Karajan conducted the opera in Vienna—and Karajan never touched something he disliked.

    Did the Pizzetti go over well with San Diego audiences? It was hard to tell from the reviews.

    I would be very keen to hear anything you have to say.

    And, once again, Happy Thanksgiving!