It takes guts for a violinist to walk onto an empty stage and play only unaccompanied Bach. But Christian Tetzlaff is that special player whose talents transcend any venue.
Tonight at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 37th International Festival of Chamber Music, Tetzlaff brought to life the timeless genius and majesty of four of J. S. Bach’s creations: two sonatas and two partitas. The performance is part of a five-city tour that includes Philadelphia (Tetzlaff’s first stop), Detroit (his next stop) and Santa Barbara.
Bach rarely included any dynamics, articulations or phrasings in his music, which is one reason why musicians play his works with such different interpretations. Although he indicated tempos, their speeds are left up to individual preferences.
Tetzlaff chose well in every aspect. There wasn’t a boring bar of music and every repeated phrase or passage had something new added to it to make it subtlely different. This made everything sound spontaneous and new. The large crowd gave him two standing ovations.
Throughout the evening, Tetzlaff’s tone was crystalline, his attacks feathery light, his bowings superbly controlled. His flawless and effortless technique was clean and true, his dynamic range was shaded on many levels. His pitch even on the double stops with the added pedal tone was exact. Sensitive to the music’s structure, his musicality had great integrity and purity and was infused with exuberance, delicacy, drama and a focused intensity. His Bach was lit from within.
In short, to paraphrase a critic who called Tetzlaff’s 2005 recording of the Bach Partitas “Olympian,” Tetzlaff played like a god. It was unbelievable how good he was Friday night.
Without any fussiness or sentimentality and only a few knee bends, Tetzlaff stood center stage, alone with his violin, and played Sonata No. 2 in a minor, Partita No. 2 in d minor, Sonata No. 3 in C and Partita No. 3 in E. His posture was relaxed and comfortable and because the music was non-stop, he paced himself with care.
His slow tempos were not too slow and all had a meditative, introspective quality. Many of the livelier movements were speedy and fiery with notes flying by at breakneck pace. Yet he was careful in these faster movements to pulse downbeats strongly and used a light bow that glided over the scales.
Did any one piece stand out? Perhaps, the Ciaconna from Partita No. 2 in d minor. It is overwhelming in its inventiveness, drama and virtuosic demands, and Tetzlaff was electrifying.