The 2005 Honorees

By Dennis D. Rooney

He is part of a new generation of German players who are reasserting important aspects of that nation’s earlier musical culture while  embracing the music of their own day. The breadth of his interpretive sympathies—ranging from spellbinding performances of Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas to Ligeti’s Violin Concerto—is reminiscent of the extraordinary profundity and eloquence of Joseph Szigeti.

Violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s selection as Instrumentalist of the Year will surprise no one who heard him perform the Bartók Violin Sonatas with pianist Lars Vogt in New York’s Alice Tully Hall in April 2004. Earlier performances of those works that season had ranged from doggedly determined to fitfully communicative. Tetzlaff, playing with an authority that excited “Eureka!”-like flashes of recognition (“Of course! That’s how it’s supposed to go!”), effaced all of them from my memory.

This remarkable interpreter was first heard in New York in a compelling debut of unaccompanied Bach, Ysaÿe, and Bartók at the 92nd Street YMHA in January 1993. A duo recital with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in the same room in November 1994 deepened that initial impression. It included a masterly account of Schubert’s Grand Fantasie, D. 934, which contained not only a magnificently phrased “Sei mir gegrüsst” section, but also a finale that featured the most perfectly in-tune traversal of its many arpeggiated scalar passages that I have ever heard. Later that same month, a hearing of his then-new Virgin Classics release of the Mozart Violin Concertos and Concerted Works further testified to Tetzlaff’s emergence as the most important violinist under 30. The performances—insightfully phrased, beautifully paced, tonally cultivated, and intelligently ornamented—simply eclipsed those of all previous complete recordings.

Tetzlaff is part of a new generation of German players who are reasserting important aspects of that nation’s earlier musical culture while at the same time embracing the music of their own day. In 2000, when he was 34, Tetzlaff displayed the breadth of his interpretive sympathies in New York, first with Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony in György Ligeti’s Concerto. Next, Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas (his celebrated Virgin recording of them was released in 1995) were heard in a pair of Tully Hall programs that split the works over a dinner break. Tetzlaff’s accomplishment was highlighted not only by critical acclaim for his Bach, but also by his use of a modern German fiddle, by Peter Greiner, which has gradually supplanted his former instrument, the “ex Cox Rothschild” Stradivarius of 1713.

“I’m now on my third Greiner,” he said recently. “The other two were good instruments and are evolving nicely, but this one is the most promising of all. It just gets better without any help. It’s versatile and easily playable. I’m one hundred percent sure that if I compared it with a Strad or a Guarneri in a double-blind test, no one could identify it as a new violin. Its basic sound is somewhat darker than my earlier Greiners and has an attractive rough edge, but it can also be brilliant and I can achieve many colors on it.”

2004 brought performances of the aforementioned Bartók Sonatas, Bach, and concertos by Berg, Schumann, and Mozart. In December he played Bartók’s Concerto No. 2 with David Robertson and the New York Philharmonic, and, in May 2005, he makes his Carnegie Hall recital debut with Andsnes, with whom he will also perform a Zankel Hall chamber music program with colleagues two days later. Tetzlaff’s reputation in New York has been paralleled by successful engagements with almost every major orchestra throughout the U.S. and Europe.

It is a cliché that minister’s sons usually get into trouble, but, at 38, Tetzlaff has built his reputation on unassailable musical integrity and a disciplined technique that enables him to brilliantly realize his expressive intentions. His serious approach to his career is equaled by his responsible attitude to his private life, which makes him spend two weeks at home for every two weeks on tour. “I enjoy playing so much that if I could travel with my wife I might play more. But now, I find it necessary to follow this schedule. If because of that, I cannot play some important date, my feeling is that I’ll do it another year. When at home, I take part in the everyday life of a normal family: shopping, coordinating schedules, and also cooking, which I really enjoy. To prepare a comforting meal is for me very relaxing.”

Born in Hamburg in 1966, to a family in which music occupied a central place, he grew up playing chamber music at home with his three siblings, all of whom also became professional musicians. His commitment to chamber music has paralleled the development of his solo career. At 6, he began both violin and piano studies; however, he was reared “normally” and not as a prodigy. It wasn’t until he was 14 that he began intensive violin study, with Uwe-Martin Haiberg at the Lübeck Conservatory. Apart from two summers at Marlboro and studies with Walter Levin at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in 1985-86, Haiberg remained Tetzlaff’s principal teacher.

“The disadvantage is that I’m arriving rather late because I wasn’t pushed to concertize early or practice more when I was young. However, I don’t think that I would be better now if I had. By studying with a musician, I approached music as a way to the violin rather than the other way round. The goal of performance is to bring a piece to life with its own character. A ‘violinistic’ approach may sound very beautiful but violate the essence of the music.”

This realization and his wide repertoire interests ensure that he avoids the “specialist” tag. He plays the standard concertos but has chosen not to follow a conventional path to violin virtuosity. “Next year I’m playing four Paganini Caprices on the same program with Bach and Bartók. It’s the first time I have done that in 20 years. I consider Paganini’s short works to be by far his best, whereas I won’t learn his First Concerto because the effort is too great for the musical rewards. However, I will play the Joachim Concerto next season. It’s quite virtuosic but also wonderful music.”

Some have likened Tetzlaff’s style of playing with Gidon Kremer’s, but I find the latter’s music-making too restlessly experimental to bear much resemblance. Instead, I would offer Joseph Szigeti as a closer match. In 1930, Szigeti was the same age as Tetzlaff is now and his international celebrity had been buildingsince the mid ’20s. Two famous recordings made about that time, the Brahms and Beethoven Concertos, would intensify his reputation for extraordinarily profound and eloquent interpretation despite a less-than-perfect technical armamentarium. Tetzlaff’s technique exceeds Szigeti’s, yet both his approach to his instrument and what he chooses to play on it strongly resemble his predecessor.

Beyond what Tetzlaff has already achieved is the prospect of further maturation—and new recordings after a hiatus of several years. Currently, critics are raving about his new Bartók Sonatas with Andsnes on Virgin and the Brahms Sonatas with Vogt on EMI. He says enthusiastically, “I have recorded the Beethoven Concerto for Arte Nova. In the spring, I’ll record a new version of the Bach Solo Sonatas for Musical Heritage. I also hope I can record the Brahms and Mendelssohn Concertos in the near future. I enjoy what I’m doing very much and just hope to be able to keep on doing it.” ?

Dennis D. Rooney is North American Editor of
The Strad. His articles on performers and recordings also appear regularly in BBC Music Magazine and Classic Record Collector. He is also an audio producer, narrator, and broadcaster who lives in New York.


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