On Sunday, I had the pleasure of attending solo violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s performance at the Symphony Center in the Loop. Tickets for students are cheap ($10) but the reward for going is priceless: You can see some of the most talented classical musicians and be wowed by their talent and stage presence. Christian Tetzlaff was no exception to this.
The only disappointing thing about his performance was the audience, who are probably some of the same people not minding their manners on escalators or while making out. I have never heard such an asthmatic, infectious group of people congregating in one place! And despite Walgreens very graciously providing free lozenges in the lobby, it seems the whole lot of them would just wait until Tetzlaff started playing until they hacked their lungs out. Rude!
In any case, here is my review of the show:
Christian Tetzlaff, Violin
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach
The Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin
When you attend Symphony Center you usually expect to hear the over 100 members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform layered and thunderous pieces from Stravinsky or Beethoven. So when German violinist Christian Tetzlaff took to the stage by himself, it was hard to imagine the sound from his lone violin filling the vast auditorium.
As he launched into Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G Minor, you could almost forget that Tetzlaff is playing unaccompanied. He is a master of the polysymphonic technique, a composing style that simultaneously incorporates multiple melodic lines. The effect sounds like dueling violins.
The sonata carries on with a bouncing curiosity until the tempo shifts, becomes faster, and is taken over by an anxious inspiration. Some of the movements are filled with rapid successions of notes that the violinist holds for only a fraction of a beat. So technically demanding are the movements that you start to wonder if Bach was trying to set up violinists for certain failure and embarrassment. Nevertheless, Tetzlaff reliably sawed his way through the movements, and he turned what could have been a sterile exercise of virtuosity into a dramatic, captivating show.
With every bounce of his bow there was not as much as a millisecond of a scratch or squeak from the violin. Tetzlaff was absolutely pitch perfect. It was clear that he did not just blindly memorise the music: Every time the melody changed, so did his facial expression. A lift of the eyebrows or the curl of smile showed that he was enraptured by his own playing.
And so was the audience.
At the end of every sonata and partita, the audience let out a collective sigh followed by a chuckle, as if they were amused by their own entrancement.
Tetzlaff’s articulate fingers took a break during several slow, graceful partitas, including Partita No. 2 in D Minor. In this first sad piece, Tetzlaff was careful to show off the full range of his violin. He used long strokes of his bow to amplify and elongate every note, without using vibrato. This caused the deep, penetrating tone of his violin to resonate throughout the auditorium.
In the partita, he stroked some notes so delicately and quietly that you had to strain to hear what was being played. It made the piece feel luxuriously improper, like you were eavesdropping on a private conversation between two lovers.
Tetzlaff proved that one does not need a symphony behind them to create complex and dramatic music. His nimble fingers can suffice.