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Friday, September 19, 2014

Concert Review: A Second Climb, up a Treacherous Peak

Christian Tetzlaff opens the 92nd St. Y season with Bach.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christian Tetzlaff and friend. Photo by Giorgio Bertazzi from the artist's website.
Bach image added by the author.
A performance of all six solo violin works by Johann Sebastian Bach (the three Sonatas and three Partitas) are the musician's equivalent of a climb up K2 without oxygen or rope. On Tuesday night, German violinist Christian Tetzlaff took on this feat (for the second time in five years) at the Kaufmann Concert Hall, a staid but intimate auditorium that is ideal in acoustic and scale for this kind of performance. This performance also served as season opener for the prestigious Upper East Side venue, a fact celebrated with the distribution of free champagne to the audience at intermission.

Despite a number of extant theories, nobody is really sure why Bach wrote these six works. What is certain is that they were a product of his fruitful four-year stay as kapellmeister in Cöthen, and that they were neglected after the composer's death. In 1809, the violinist Joseph Joachim began the practice of playing these works publicly, and they have since emerged as a difficult but rewarding core work in the repertory for solo violin, the bane of any serious music student and a real challenge for even the most hardened professional.


Performance of these six works in order (Sonata No. 1, Partita No. 1, Sonata. No. 2. Partita No. 2, Sonata No. 3, Partita No. 3) is more than musical masochism. Bach charts a course from the Stygian darkness of G minor (Sonata No. 1) to the sunny shores of E Major (Partita No. 3). The first  ideas emerge from a bleak opening chord and unfold as the cycle progresses, with the dances and diversion of the Partitas providing contrast to the "serious" material of the sonatas. (Note: Bach calls these works "sonatas" but there is no resemblance to the strict "sonata form" of the Classical period, that developed later.) The sonata movements alternate slow-fast-slow-fast, with the second always a fugue--its diverse voices sounded with precise bowing that creates the aural illusion of multiple violinists.

Mr. Tetzlaff produced somber, appropriately mournful tone in the opening G minor Sonata. Indeed, throughout the cycle, his instrument's timbre rose slowly, moving from a gritty, bleak sound to a sweet, lyric tone as the music moved into sunnier territory. This led to some really lovely colors in the first Partita and second Sonata, rich amber chords that sounded crisp as a new apple. Bach required the artist to play in a huge variety of styles in these works, and Mr. Tetzlaff met the first half and its challenges with stylish playing.

In the second half of last night's program, Mr. Tetzlaff scaled to the dangerous summit: the 13-minute chaconne that ends the Partita No. 2. This movement is sheer murder, a set of variations on a simple ground-bass theme whose difficulty and great length make a live performance a tremendous risk for even the most gifted artist. Mr. Tetzlaff approached this work boldly, sawing off the opening chords with blunt force before embarking upon the long series of arpeggios and progressions that make up the main bulk of this movement. With palpable effort, he scaled and planted his flag on the peak of this work, sounding almost relieved as he re-iterated the opening notes of the chaconne to end the movement.

As the violinist tired, the production of dulcet sound proved more difficult, as false notes crept in and bowings became (occasionally) harsh and even discordant. The greatest technical problems emerged in the 10-minute Fugue of the Third Sonata, with its treacherous multiple stops and complex counterpoint interspersed with some ugly notes and small lapses in tuning. But all those imperfections are part of the sum tota of playing these six works in a cycle: the the humanity of the artist presented for the listener to inspect.

The short E Major Partita is notably less treacherous than its two predecessors. In fact here, Mr. Tetzlaff was almost relaxed, visibly tired but glad to be at the end of the journey. With a tightly focused audience, some of Bach's audible jokes and moments of good humor drew laughter from the audience, as they were swept away in the dancing figures of Mr. Tetzlaff's fiddle. It was an ideal way to end this marathon evening. The evident exhaustion of the soloist as he took his bows reminded one why the soloist had not presented this concert in New York in five years.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.