Sunday, April 6, 2014

A partnership of contrasts at Celebrity Series

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi.

The brilliant Christian Tetzlaff has been a regular visitor to Boston (perhaps too regular; last Sunday Jordan Hall was only two-thirds full) - but we've never seen him before with pianist Lars Vogt, a frequent collaborator of the violinist only now making his Celebrity Series debut. And their partnership proved a striking mix of sympathies and contrasts: Vogt has a plush, almost heavy touch at the keyboard, while Tetzlaff is known for the nearly virginal finish of his stroke. Hence there's a subtle tension at work in almost everything they do - but as the saying goes, opposites attract, and for a reason; by the end of this concert we understood the appeal of this partnership's buried musical stresses - and the artistic dividends they could yield.

The span of the program was immense, as it ranged from the classic to the modern, and the miniature to the mammoth.  First came Mozart's Sonata in B-flat Major (K. 454) which courted controversy from its opening chords. For Vogt clearly took the lead, with the piano at full stick, weaving a rich brocade to which Tetzlaff contributed glittering stitchery. This seemed (at least for the time being) a valid rebuke to the tinkling Mozart that has begun to dominate the concert stage, and Vogt's playing was always elegant - and intelligent; still, I felt the balance in the opening movements tilted too far in his direction. Tetzlaff soon came into his own, however, as he brought a sense of hushed heartbreak to the Andante and a forceful vigor to the concluding Allegretto, which both took at a breathlessly tripping pace.

Pianist Lars Vogt. Photo: Neda Nevaee.
The duo then leapt into the twentieth century with Bartók's titanic Sonata No. 1 (Sz. 78), a barnburner that's riven by a mad clash between romantic and modernist drama.  Here there was tension built not only into the styles of the work's performers, but into the composer's M.O. itself - for on the piano, Bartók sends rushes of late-romantic arpeggios crashing into impacted crags of dissonance, while lifting the violin into a keening song that quavers with gypsy whispers. The ongoing storm between these sensibilities conjures an overwhelming sense of tragedy, cut here and there by yearning dreams; the sonata's structure may ultimately be hard to fathom, but it's relentlessly gripping, and as you might guess, it's an all-but-perfect vehicle for Tetzlaff and Vogt. The violinist was feverishly committed, but almost scarily clean - this was how a musical martyr might play - while Vogt's touch turned morosely lush. It's a long piece, but somehow Vogt and Tetzlaff had the energy to turn the concluding Allegro into a ferocious dance, which at last collapsed in exhaustion. Thank God it was time for intermission.

The concert resumed with a second hairpin turn, this time from the maximalism of Bartók to the minimalism of Anton Webern, with his Four Pieces for violin and piano (Op. 7).  And here I can only say that either you're a Webern fan, or you're not - and perhaps I'm not.  I admit his miniatures are compact masterpieces, though, with stunning variety worked into their brevity. Alas, Op. 7 proved not only quite short but perhaps here was too consistently soft - I didn't feel Tetzlaff and Vogt conjured the various musical "spaces" that Webern devises; so his musical kōans competed with coughs from the gallery and conversations in the hall.  After the Bartók, it felt more like an anticlimax than a contrast.

This misfire was quickly forgotten, however, once Tetzlaff and Vogt sailed into Beethoven's Sonata No. 7 in C minor (Op. 30, No. 2).  This sonata begins in the fateful cadence familiar from the period of Beethoven's famous "Heiligenstadt Testament;" but it soon expands into sequences of unexpected lyricism, even lightness. And this variety seemed to serve as the touchstone of the performance: Tetzlaff brought a new warmth to the Adagio cantabile, and the Scherzo trotted like a dance, while the demanding Finale found a middle ground between these various moods.

The crowd called both back for an encore, of course - which turned out to be a delightful rendition of the finale of Dvořák’s skipping Sonatine in G Major (Op. 100). This charmer was met with such rapturous applause that on the spot they played the ravishing second movement, too.  Which closed this exciting musical afternoon on a note of exquisite sweetness. 

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