Sunday, October 20, 2013

Three worlds: the Tetzlaff Quartet

This afternoon (Sunday, October 20, 2013) at 3 PM we welcome the return of the Tetzlaff Quartet, whose first violinist, Christian Tetzlaff, makes his fourth appearance at Spivey Hall.  He's performed solo Bach for us, and (most recently) a duo program with pianist Lars Vogt.  His Quartet unites four exceptionally strong players who exemplify the expressive power of the genre.  How appropriate, then, that their program opens with Joseph Haydn's C-major "Sun" Quartet, Op. 20 No. 2, which musicologists cite as an important point of stylistic evolution in Haydn's quartet writing:  rather than a solo violin line with accompaniment, all four voices participate fully in the dialogue of each movement.  Hearing good Haydn is like drinking cool water on a hot day and breathing fresh air.  It feeds the spirit in natural, very human, ways.

I can't quite remember the first time I heard Christian Tetzlaff in concert, but it's been at least fifteen years (I recall a dinner at the Sydney Opera House with him and guest conductor Marek Janowski following a Sydney Symphony performance during my Australian days).  I remember more vividly hearing Christian perform the Berg Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre several years later.  The intensity, intelligence, and ultimately, the enlightened radiance he brought to the realization of this amazing work was utterly enthralling, because of the penetrating quality of engagement with the music, and the way that intellect and emotion inform his interpretations, to bring clarity and transparency to what he plays.  All comes into focus.  The essence of the composer's creation is revealed.

Such are the powers of understanding and expression that I expect will inform the Quartet's performance of Bartok's Fourth Quartet.  The more I listen to Bartok, the more I appreciate how original his compositional voice is.  I first encountered this quartet while a music major in college, and I struggled with its density of notes and ideas, its almost relentless complexity of counterpoint.  Over time, hearing different performances, I came to understand its behavior better, and could apprehend more of its architecture.  I also discovered that who was playing this quartet made a profound difference in my ability to grasp it (as illustrated abundantly when I heard a performance by the Emerson Quartet).  Although Bartok may not be everyone's cup of tea, I love this piece because in listening to it, I can "lean into it" as heavily as I like, and this effort is rewarded.  To put it somewhat oddly and awkwardly, it gives my ears something to chew on.  Thus I have high hopes that the Tetzlaff Quartet will again help me and the audience to understand (I first typed "see'") this extraordinary piece, aided by the musicians' remarkable powers of discernment -- to lead our listening in revelatory ways.

Two summers ago, an article by Jeremy Eichler about Christian Tetzlaff appeared in The New Yorker, entitled "String Theorist:  Christian Tetzlaff rethinks how a violin should sound."  For anyone who cares about what it takes to bring works of classical music to life, it's a great read.  These words resonated with me:

"At a time when the modern conservatory system has rendered technical virtuosity a commonplace, Tetzlaff is distinguished by his deep musical empathy -- his ability to open a window into a composer's inner life. Tetzlaff is not a religious man, but he describes his art in frankly spiritual terms.  Performing music, he says, "is the job that has the most to do with the belief in the existence of a soul.  I deal in Berg's soul, in Brahms's soul--that's my job.  And, you can challenge me, but I find that music is  humans' most advanced achievement, more so than painting and writing, because it's more mysterious, more magical, and it acts in such a direct way."

Today's program closes with Beethoven's A-minor Quartet, Op. 132, one of the most openly autobiographical of Beethoven's late works for string quartet, which offers some very telling glimpses into the composer's soul, written after a period of serious illness.  Beethoven included in the score of the third movement (in his native German), "A convalescent's sacred song of thanks to the Divinity, in the Lydian mode."  Here, certainly, is a chance for Christian Tetzlaff, Elisabeth Kufferath, Hanna Weinmeister, and Tanja Tetzlaff to "deal in Beethoven's soul" -- and I expect the results will be marvelous.

In writing this post, I find myself using visual terms. That's probably why "opening a window in the composer's spiritual life" made such an impression on me in Eichler's profile.  Tetzlaff is a truth seeker in sound.  In performing for us, he "sees" for us.

Dr. Kurt-Alexander Zeller will give a pre-concert talk at 2 PM about this program, and the entire audience is invited to a post-concert reception with the artists in the lobby.  Mr. John Markham, who has sponsored several Spivey Hall guest artists in recent seasons and travels from Florida to attend Spivey Hall concerts, is the Friends of Spivey Hall Concert Sponsor of the Tetzlaff Quartet.  I remain grateful for music-lovers like John whose generosity makes possible great music not just for themselves, but for many others as well.  Thank you, John.


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