Review: Tetzlaff’s violin has much to say about Bach

Christian Teztlaff. Photo: Giorgia Bertazzi

Chalk it up to seasonal hazards, but even the rumbling racket of a passing street sweeping vehicle wasn’t enough to break the spell at violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s solo Bach recital at Dominion-Chalmers on Thursday.

In fact, Tetzlaff is so committed to Bach’s music for unaccompanied violin, he paused between the Fugue and the Largo of the C major Sonata and waited, patient and silent, for the din to fade into the distance before proceeding. Not one person minded.

Tetzlaff has recorded Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas three times and performs them constantly. Yet he still finds the scores to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration and expressive beauty.

At his Ottawa Chamberfest recital, Tetzlaff performed the second and third set of sonatas and partitas. Tetzlaff’s playing is visceral, individualistic, thoughtful and radically liberated. His dynamic range is breathtaking in its scope, tiny, sighing pianissimos building to violent triple fortes.  The Largo in the C major Sonata was moulded in the most delicate, translucent porcelain — no wonder Tetzlaff wanted nothing to compete with it.

The two huge fugues in the sonatas were presented as impressionistic conduits for emotion rather than contrapuntal exercises. This was description and shaping on an almost Romantic scale, focused through a disciplined, distinguished sound. While he doesn’t strictly follow early music orthodoxy,Tetzlaff uses vibrato sparsely and judiciously, and his minimalist approach to ornamentation allowed each trill to serve an expressive purpose instead of a technical one.

Tetzlaff showed a more playful side in the two Partitas. He has an instinctive appreciation for their foundation in dance music. The phrasing moved with an animal vigour, Tetzlaff sending motifs and accents skipping like stones on water. There was seductive languorous in the stately Sarabande of the D minor Partita, and a charming sense of city mouse/country mouse contrast in the two Minuets of the E major Partita. The E major Loure sounded almost tipsy.

Any violinist can exploit the monumental nature of the great D minor Chaconne; Tetzlaff is one of the few who presents it in a more intimate, natural light. In his interpretation, the music turns into a kind of river landscape, the flow unstoppable but always shifting: cresting waves dissolving into hypnotically whirling eddies, dangerous rapids eventually making way for calm, still pools. The final chords didn’t contain the expected dramatic climax, but were sober and melancholic — a question mark instead of a period, from an artist who still has so much to say about Bach’s evergreen genius.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.