Monday, December 18, 2017

Tetzlaff’s Bach: Disciplined and Expressive

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Last night in Davies Symphony Hall, the Great Performers Series, hosted by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), provided a welcome relief (at least for some of us) from the usual (and sometimes unusual) seasonal offerings. Thanks to both SFS and San Francisco Performances, last night’s “great performer” has become a familiar face (and a welcome one, probably for most of us) in San Francisco, participating in both concerto and chamber music performances. Last night, however, was an unaccompanied solo recital, just Tetzlaff and his violin alone, playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach on the stage of a vast structure built for the might of a full symphony orchestra.

Fortunately, Tetzlaff maintains a bold command of his instrument, reinforced by a thorough understanding of its potential sonorities. Thus, he knew how to make even his softest passages resound from the stage to fill the space occupied by his listeners. This was all the more significant when one considers that the dynamic markings in the music he was playing were few and far between. As was announced on this site last Friday, his program consisted of four consecutive entries in the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis: BWV 1003 (sonata in A minor), BWV 1004 (partita in D minor), BWV 1005 (sonata in C major), and BWV 1006 (partita in E major).

As the notes in the program book observed (author unknown since three authors were listed with no indication of who was responsible for which texts), it is reasonable to assume that these pieces were written for a violinist with virtuoso talents. Nevertheless, as this site has frequently suggested, it is rare to find a composition by Bach that does not have at least some degree of pedagogical undercurrents. Bach was serving as Kapellmeister to Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen when these sonatas and partitas were composed in 1720; but that date tells us that he was also seeing the musical training of two of his sons who would eventually establish their own careers: Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel.

From that point of view, we should recall the title page that Bach provided for the two-part and three-part inventions he wrote, also during his time in Köthen, which made it clear that training involved not only clarity of execution but also the craft of “invention.” Since the notes themselves are written out explicitly in the sonatas and partitas, it would not be out of the question to assume that, in this case, “invention” was a matter of taking one’s own approach to bringing expressiveness to what would otherwise be mere marks on paper.

So it was that, over the course of last night’s recital, Tetzlaff kept coming up with new approaches to bring expressiveness to each of the twenty movements he played distributed over his four selections. This was just as true when he was working with familiar dance forms (although his approach to expression was not always consistent with rhythms that would support dance steps) as when he was approaching the more massive “abstract” movements, such as the fugues in the A minor and C major sonatas or the chaconne in the D minor partita. As a result, virtuoso display, while impressive, tended to take a back seat to the prodigious diversity of inventive qualities, not only in the notes themselves but also in Tetzlaff’s approaches to interpreting them.

The result could not have been more compelling. Furthermore, Tetzlaff’s command of his expressiveness was downright contagious. I cannot recall that last time I was aware of so many people sitting so attentively in Davies. Tetzlaff knew how to appeal to the attentive nature of his listeners, and last night’s audience definitely repaid him the favor. Indeed, the enthusiasm was such that no one seemed to mind an encore that involved yet another movement from Bach’s collection, the opening Adagio to the BWV 1001 sonata in G minor. This was a Great Performers event whose title could definitely be taken seriously (and enjoyably)!

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