Sunday 26 April 2009

Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt, Wigmore Hall, 25 April 2009

Wigmore Hall

Bach – Sonata for violin and piano no.5 in F minor, BWV 1018
Brahms – Sonata for violin and piano no.2 in A major, op.100
Bartók – Sonata for violin and piano no.1, Sz.75

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Lars Vogt (piano)

This was very much a concert of two halves. In Bach and Brahms, Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt provided decent but less than thrilling performances, sometimes veering towards the apparently disengaged, whereas the Wigmore Hall audience was treated to a truly outstanding performance of Bartók’s first violin sonata.

Vogt’s style in Bach was somewhat Gouldian, if without the Canadian pianist’s level of desiccation. I did not notice use of the sustaining pedal even once. Nevertheless, Vogt provided a rock-steady keyboard part, above which Tetzlaff could weave his melodic charm. The violinist’s tone was rich without excessive Romanticism, almost viola-like at times in the first movement, but there was no non- or low-vibrato nonsense; Bach’s music was treated as music. Rhythmic security was absolute throughout. In the second movement, both violin and piano sang a little more freely than they had in the opening Largo, and proved willing to employ powerful dynamic contrasts. Greater light and shade permitted the musicians to maintain tension throughout without sounding unrelenting. Dyed-in-the-wool Handelians might ask of the third movement, ‘Where’s the tune?’ but anyone who knows the C major Prelude from Book One of the Forty-Eight would recognise the stupidity of such a question. Tetzlaff’s double-stopped ‘accompaniment’ was always spot on, whilst Vogt seemed more relaxed, apparently enjoying his instrument’s ringing of the harmonic changes, ‘melody’ arising from what might, on the page, seem ‘mere’ figuration. In the final Vivace, Tetzlaff unleashed the full tone of the violin. Care was taken over imitative entries but what I missed, both here and in the ensuing Brahms sonata, was a real sense of interaction between the players, or at least of the intensity such interaction can sometimes elicit.

The opening Allegro amabile of Brahms’s A major violin sonata was taken at a fastish tempo, the general approach seeming to be to challenge any idea of the ‘autumnal’. Yet after relatively ‘light’ opening bars, there was a variety of ardent Romanticism to be heard. Part-writing was commendably clear and there were many eminently musical virtues; nevertheless, I felt that the players might have dug deeper emotionally, to find that rather more was at stake than suggested here. Moreover, the reading was often somewhat four-square, especially in the piano part; definition of particular phrases was at the expense of a longer line, which need not be the case. Again, the Andante tranquillo sections of the second movement were far from slow but the scherzo-like Vivace passages were not unduly fast; indeed, they exhibited a rather winning lilt. Contrapuntal clarity was again very much to the fore. Teztlaff’s tone was beautiful, his vibrato marvellously expressive. The final movement was brisk, rather too much so, I thought, as if on excessive guard against perceived sentimentality. Nevertheless, there were moments of beauty from violinist and pianist, if more often individually than in combination.

With the opening bar of the Bartók sonata, we were plunged into a different world, not just in terms of the harmonic language but in terms of the palpable electricity in the performance. Vogt opened as if this were expressionist Debussy – which, in a way, it is – unleashing a violent beauty whose presence would not necessarily have harmed Bach or Brahms. Tetzlaff followed up with those all-important Bartókian rhythms. The Schoenbergian quality of Bartók’s piano writing was most apparent, especially in the chordal writing, which stands not so very far from the Austrian composer’s Opp. 11 and 19 Piano Pieces. The early 1920s perhaps mark the high watermark of Second Viennese School influence upon and challenge towards Bartók, for one was also made aware of a kinship in the violin part with Berg’s yet-to-be-written concerto, of which Tetzlaff has proved himself a fine exponent. Mystery, violence, seduction: all were present. Teztlaff’s tone could be silvery, abrasive, warm, but always ‘right’ for the particular demands of the music. It was interesting to note that, for all the radicalism ascribed to Bartók in this piece, the music here is far less percussive – and was performed far less percussively – than much of the writing in his first two piano concertos. Lyrical profusion and proliferation, after Bach but also with a hint or two of Boulez, are the keys to the piano part, and this is what we heard.

The Adagio was performed at an equally high level. Teztlaff’s opening solo reminded us of the gypsy element in Bartók’s violin writing – this despite his preference for supposedly ‘real’ Hungarian folksong over gypsy music. A sense of outdoor extemporisation was present within extremely controlled parameters, the conflict between the two providing the key to so much of Bartók’s music. Violin harmonics sounded duly haunting. Vogt recognised the ‘whiteness’ of his opening piano chords, which looked forward to the third piano concerto. Thereafter, the piano part continued as if we were listening to a somewhat disrupted – and disrupting – neo-Chopin chorale, pointing to the influence of Bach’s music upon both composers, whilst Teztlaff weaved his lyrical magic above, ever faultless in intonation. Piano night music intervened, but was overruled by the violin, revealing a true sense of dramatic conflict and instrumental characterisation. With the opening of the finale, we were reminded by the percussive piano writing – and performance – that this is indeed the composer of the first two piano concertos. Rhythmic exactitude from both players enabled a still further intensified sense of drama and excitement, metrical dislocations handled with an almost diabolical skill. The virtuosity, whether in Teztlaff’s jagged roulades or Vogt’s cascading glissandi, was staggering but was always deployed to musical ends. Controlled mania was the dialectical premise upon which this outstanding performance reached its conclusion.

As encores we were treated first to the final movement of Dvořák's sonatina for violin and piano, and then – ‘because we like it so much,’ as Vogt announced – the preceding slow movement. I wondered whether we should end up with the entire work in reverse movement order, but alas not. Suffice it to say that these were fluid, committed accounts, very much in the spirit of the Bartók performance, albeit more gentle. This made me curious as to whether the Bach and Brahms works, if performed again, would benefit from such ‘warming up’. In any case, the Bartók sonata was the thing. The concert was recorded for subsequent broadcast on Radio 3; this will be well worth seeking out.