A lone violin, when nothing more is needed

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff performing solo at Jordan Hall on Sunday. Violinist Christian Tetzlaff performing solo at Jordan Hall on Sunday. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 2, 2010

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There were no gimmicks in Jordan Hall Sunday night. No semi-staging. No actors employed. No mood lighting. No screen projections to help us feel the music. There was not even a pianist to accompany it.

There was only one deeply serious artist, the violinist Christian Tetzlaff, alone with his instrument on a completely empty stage. It turned out that, for one of the most rewarding concerts in recent memory, nothing more was required.

This 43-year old German violinist, who deserves to be much better known than he is, produces art out of a wonderful tension. He is a self-effacing interpreter, a purist and chameleon capable of inhabiting a vast range of music. But his playing is also unified by his own distinctive voice as an artist, his gift for projecting a sense of recomposition, a feeling that the notes may have been written by others but they are being pulled off the page by the force of his own personality, life experience, and artistic imagination.

If his solo Bach was particularly moving on Sunday afternoon, it was not only because the Sonatas and Partitas are desert-island string music, or because they were rendered here with a technique of extraordinary subtlety. It was also because Tetzlaff offers this music with such integrity and interiority. With some performers we may marvel at the speed of their fingers. On Sunday night, I was more aware of the distant expression on his face - specifically, the nearly five seconds it took after the close of Bach’s majestic Chaconne before Tetzlaff could receive the audience’s applause. He was somewhere deep inside the musical world he had erected in those 13 minutes of music. And judging from the audience response, many were right there with him.

Bach’s D Minor Partita, of which the Chaconne is the celebrated closing movement, is often the high point or final destination of a violin recital. For Sunday’s Celebrity Series program, Tetzlaff chose it as his opening work. He followed with Bach’s C Major Sonata, and then music by Kurtag, Ysaye, and Paganini.

Tetzlaff’s Bach was intensely personal, a kind of sustained, soulful study in color and shading. Tempos flowed organically, without excessive rubato but also without a strict or corseted feeling. Stopped chords were rich in bass, and the moments of musical surprise were many, as with the very final notes of the C Major Sonata, often proudly declared, here tossed off with a sense of Baroque lightness and fantasy.

In his day, Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931) was a peerless violinist and his wonderfully idiomatic set of six solo sonatas can be thought as a kind of gift to the fraternity of fiddle players. In that vein, they are often turned to as vehicles for dazzling technical display, but Tetzlaff brought out more in the G Minor Sonata (Op. 27, No. 1), serving it up as a sampler of searing violinistic expressionism. The echoes of Bach were clear but so was this music’s roaring modern edge. The closing paragraphs of the Fugato movement are full of blistering runs and whip-crack arpeggios; Tetzlaff not only nailed the technical challenges but also treated each like a kind of solar mirror, concentrating the work’s heat and light so that he could build to a blinding finish.

A set of four Kurtag miniatures, taken mostly from the composer’s “Signs, Games, and Messages,’’ showcased the violinist’s flair with contemporary music. The closing “Zank - Kromatisch’’ was spiky, rugged and brazen. It was preceded however by Kurtag’s “Doloroso,’’ a spectral, otherworldly work originally written for solo viola. As a composer Kurtag often demands that his performers go to interpretive extremes and Tetzlaff here was equal to the task, playing with a tone that was impossibly, arrestingly quiet, a kind of asymptotic approach to silence.

The recital ended with four Paganini Caprices. The violinist paused at one point to complain of the cold draft on stage that he said was affecting his fingers, but it did not prevent him from offering a highly dramatic reading. I have heard this fiendishly virtuosic music performed more effortlessly but never in a way that probed as deeply for their musical riches.

Encores came by way of more Bach (a Gavotte of artful simplicity) and more Kurtag (another miniature from “Signs, Games and Messages’’). In that moment, this pair of composers sounded as if, despite the intervening centuries, they shared a certain secret, a particular way of looking at the world. If we could say it in words we would not need their music.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at


Celebrity Series of Boston

At: Jordan Hall, Sunday