For Christian Tetzlaff, the music is always front and centre

Christian Teztlaff. Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi

For Christian Tetzlaff, it really is all about the music.

“I am not the composer. I give it all that I have, but it is impossible to think you are as important as the composer. With some interpreters, you get the feeling it is about them and not the piece.”

It’s not a question of being humble however.

“Honestly, I don’t feel like I am emanating humility, or shyness on stage. We have to put everything we have in a performance but it’s always in relation to the bigger picture” of the music, says the German virtuoso who will make a rare appearance this week at Dominion-Chalmers United Church in the final concert of the Chamberfest winter series.

He is playing a collection of Bach sonatas and partitas on Thursday night; works he has explored before.

“Bach is universally loved, not because of his religious message, but because his melodies and his harmonies are so direct, so naive and so deep.

“He writes about harrowing and dark places and he really puts it out so strongly. But he is also one of the few composers who can give voice to real joy. His music crawls through your body on every level. It is really amazing.”

“Bach looks the devil in the eyes. It’s not careful art.”

And, Tetzlaff says, “nowadays we are allowed to play it as if it were written by a human.”

He says Bach was once treated as something monumental and God-like. Performers weren’t supposed “to shout and whisper and moan and sing” during a concert.

“Fortunately this has disappeared and we are now moaning and shouting and whispering.”

He says he has recorded the pieces he will play this week three times, latest in 2017.

He says he is getting better at them.

“The first recording I did when I was 27 and it’s now 25 years ago. Layer upon layer, over time, I peeled off some of the things that were in the way in the beginning … Nowadays I feel very free in trying to say exactly what is going on there.”

The 27 year old Christian Tetzlaff was a bit more afraid of the music, he says.

“He had played them less often.” And he spent a lot of his time then making sure he got the notes precisely right.

“Precision is good for some things, but it is really bad for most things,” he said. “These pieces are supposed to breathe and dance.  If you have things pinned down too neatly, you cannot allow the freedom and the different sounds to come out in performance.”

Time has created this perspective, but he won’t called it wisdom.

“There is much less wisdom now. I would say experience yes and accepting many different emotions. Planning is a fine thing but it only takes you so far.”

Perhaps having six children has helped evolve his thinking, as has “rough and horrible and beautiful patches.”

The horrible patches included a battle with neurodermatitis, which affected his left hand. It caused the skin on his fingers to become severely dry, especially in colder temperatures. And when he played he would have to press harder on the strings causing severe pain. He started wearing the tips of cotton gloves on his fingers. He has learned how to control the condition but it was a struggle that he has said threatened his career.

His struggles set to the side, Tetzlaff surveys a violin world dominated by flash and dash. And he’s not impressed.

“Unfortunately with the fiddle this was always the case. Very often we have people who are very famous who don’t care about what they have under their fingers. So Bach and Beethoven, they all sounded the same.

“It is a funny concept for someone who is trying to translate the emotions of a composer to go for admiration.”

Tetzlaff believes the mission of the performer is to allow the music to be front and centre not the player.

It’s OK, perhaps, in pop music, he says, but “for classical musicians, it takes away from the experience of the concert if you are looking at what the performer is wearing” for example.

Performance standards are one thing, but Tetzlaff is less interested in practicing for hours at a time.

“The moment the fun leaves the room you are in trouble physically and also emotionally. I have seen too many people and too many students put themselves in trouble for their parents and their teachers.

“And they wreck themselves by practicing six or seven hours a day. It’s sad to see.”

Two of his children are musicians. His oldest, Simon, is building a career for himself on the cello. But Tetzlaff says that he didn’t push them to take up an instrument. Nor did he push them to practice.

Tetzlaff was 15 when he practiced for three hours in a row for the first time.

“I was very proud of that. But in comparison that is simply nothing for many violinists. In the last 20 years I have been downgraded to usually an average of an hour or even a half an hour a day. I know sometimes that is not good, but my life is just like that.

“I would like to do more but I often can’t.” The fact that three of his children are under 10 might have something to do with that.

“I know that even at my age there are colleagues who still practice five six hours a day even though they have practiced everything and it’s more like a ritual. You are scared it wouldn’t work if you didn’t do it.

“It would be nice to find a (happy) medium, but we should really spare those kids all that the time practicing and then maybe in the end not reaching the goal of being a hot shot soloist and being frustrated by that.

“In music we are talking about something that should be sweet in your heart and something that enriches your life and the lives of everybody around you.”

Music is not competitive, he says, calling it the ultimate art form.

“I think a big reason why it is the ultimate art form is that it is non-verbal. You can say things much more directly.

“In a good concert, when it works, everybody in the room is allowed to go to whatever place feels good … for me there is no magic on the planet like that. … If you are ever allowed to, for example, sing a passion by Bach then you will also feel the most important thing we humans can offer each other which is compassion.”

While Tetzlaff isn’t religious in a going-to-church sort of way, he is spiritual.

“It would be weird to do what I am trying to do if I didn’t deal with the spirit.”

Chamberfest presents Christian Tetzlaff
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: April 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.