Classical Concert Review: Violinist Christian Tetzlaff — “Playing for Life and Death”

By Susan Miron

Christian Tetzlaff’s recital was a breathtaking experience, full of dancelike grace, intelligence, and charm.

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Photo: Jon Tadiello.

The Rockport Music program for Christian Tetzlaff’s extraordinary Bach recital in Shalin Liu Performance Center listed the timings of each of the two sonatas and two partitas he was performing. I would venture to say no one cared. From the moment Tetzlaff picked up his violin with the fading sun behind him, all those who packed the hall were held spellbound — time simply stopped when he played. Movement after movement, Tetzlaff bewitched his rapt listeners, taking them deep into a world of Bach and beauty. Tetzlaff has written, “I find his music speaks directly to the heart.” Every note spoke to ours.

Tetzlaff has played Bach for decades, recording the 6 Sonatas and Partitas three times, and he has written that he believes these pieces were composed by Bach for himself, as private expressions of the soul. For Bach, “These pieces are something of a personal prayer book.” The same might be said for Tetzlaff. The program notes describe the six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1003-1004-1005-1006) as dramatizing a “spiritual communion with the universe.” Bach often played them for himself on the harpsichord via a keyboard version with full harmonies. All sorts of instrumentalists have also adapted them in various ways, even making selected movements — especially the d minor Chaconne — workable for cello, piano, harp, trumpet and orchestra — even recorder orchestra.

Yet, having performed a reasonably good transcription of this for the harp, I am now convinced it is best left to the violin, especially when performed by someone with the sensitivity of Tetzlaff.

The first half of Tetzlaff’s program featured Sonata No. 2 in a minor, Partita No. 2 in d minor (with the colossal Chaconne). The Sonata No. 3 in C major and Partita No. 3 in E Major followed. I had never seen Tetzlaff live before, but had heard many of his recordings with the late pianist Lars Vogt, his duo and trio partner for a quarter century. The loss of his dear friend in September was harrowing. Tetzlaff sees the “horrifying lament” of the Chaconne, played just before intermission, as a commemorative lament written by Bach after the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara. “This would explain why in a cycle for violin solo a horrifying monument suddenly takes shape in a Partita, which normally has short movements,” noted Tetzlaff on one of his recordings of the piece. His Chaconne was magnificent, a virtuoso chiaroscuro of hope and despair. I have known and loved this composition all my life. I have never heard it performed better.

Highlights of the evening included the plangent C Major Largo, the weeping d minor Sarabanda, and the entire well-known E Major Partita, which opened and ended at the speed of light. Tetzlaff can — and does — play really fast to thrilling effect. In an interview, he said that, when playing “the most mind-shattering and heartbreaking music …You have to play for life and death, to dig deep into your soul and really become one with the composer…” Throughout this passionate recital, Tetzlaff achieved that kind of uncanny unity.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for the Arts Fuse and the Boston Musical Intelligencer.

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