The Melbourne Recital Centre began the 2015 Great Performers Series in quite spectacular style, presenting Frankfurt-based violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who left the audience breathless. Many would remember Tetzlaff’s performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto two years but an entire evening of solo violin could be quite a different matter. The Bach Sonata No.3 was always going to be well received but the 20th century works which flanked it were something of a challenge.
The presenters’ faith in Tetzlaff was well founded, however. The performer took the stage for the first work by Eugene Ysaye, the Belgian composer who as a violinist himself was inclined to push a performer’s technique. Tetzlaff appeared a slight figure until he quietly assumed his stance for the first movement. From the first few bars his prowess was evident, strong and emphatic chords highlighting the music’s debt to Bach. The double stops were heart stopping, the fugue was intricate; but most extraordinary was that it sounded for all the world as if there were two violins playing simultaneously. The melody line seemed to go into different directions followed by a baroque style succession of chords and trills, with an exact and precise attack to end.
The audience simply could not help itself and – although this was only the first part of Ysaye’s Sonata in G minor – there was applause, acknowledged by Tetzlaff with a smile. What followed was demanding of a violinist’s skills in every way, but apparently no presenting no difficulty for the performer. Beginning without the stunning pyrotechnics of the first movement the beauty of the melodic line could shine. But soon the double stopping was so intense it was as if those “two” violinists had returned yet with an uncanny evenness. It was extraordinary to hear a Bach-like structure in a modern work as, once again, Tetzlaff used his whole body for strength in a sustained attack.
The Bach began with measured calm but the violin was active in “accompaniment” of the main theme, with the prevailing mood one of warmth and richness. By accentuating certain features Tetzlaff lifted the work out of its baroque constraints yet without taking liberties. As with the previous work the slow movement gave the impression of two violins with a contrast of strength and lighter faster notes. It was hard to imagine how this work could be better played.
Continuing the illusion of there being two players there was a long passage in the upper register that first came across as a “solo” joined by a second melodic line. Through all of this the work maintained a metronome-like steadiness and yet without stiffness.
The third movement was slow and beautiful, Melody interspersed with chords and the occasional ornament. Fast fingerwork did not cloud variations such as in repeated phrases. The finale was taken at breakneck speed, yet with a rhythmic sense. This was music written for a soloist of Tetzlaff’s brilliance and he did not disappoint.
At this point it is worth mentioning that Tetzlaff plays a violin modelled after a Guarneri del Gesu crafted by the German violin maker, Peter Greiner. Audiences are so accustomed to hearing soloists playing centuries-old instruments that it was good to know modern instruments can be worthy even of great performers.
The final work by Bartok was played without the benefit of the music. All the energy, challenge and sheer impossibility of Bartok seemed exemplified by the first few bars and there was not much relief after that for the performer. At this point admiration of Tetzlaff’s physical prowess overtook enjoyment of the music perhaps. A spare interlude was a relief for the violinist and listener with a few plucked notes to end.
The next movement brought a strident series of dotted notes and then, like the Bach, the impression of several instruments at play. This was interspersed with quite savage pizzicato before more fast fingerwork. It should be noted that throughout, Tetzlaff remained calm with only his facial expression occasionally giving away the strain of this effort.
The third movement brought more contrast, with a quite gentle melody (and a clever echo effect), amazing control through double-stopping and an extraordinary tremolo flutter. Just as the music was pianissimo there was almost complete silence in the hall. Then, as if written specifically for the close of a concert the final movement (moto perpetuo) lived up to its name. Tetzlaff’s whole body was put into play to achieve the strong accents up to the G major chord that ended the work with a flourish.
There was only one possible direction for the demanded encore to take. Bach, a slow movement, played beautifully and honestly with no pyrotechnics needed. A great performance indeed from a great performer.
© Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi