Bach: Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003
Bach: Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004
Bach: Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005
Bach: Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006
There are very few violinists who can handle Johann Sebastian Bach with the knowledge, technique and aplomb of Christian Tetzlaff, so any performance of the former by the latter is a must-attend for any dedicated music lover. Therefore, I don’t have to emphasize how thrilled I was when I originally saw both names mentioned in the same concert program in the Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series this season. Even better, the concert would take place in the wonderful Alice Tully Hall.
I was much less thrilled though, when I saw that he would only be performing the last four of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. Granted, the full set, which is widely considered the pinnacle of the violin repertoire, is so mercilessly challenging that it is rarely played in its entirety. But it can be done. I also want to point out that the only two violinists I have ever witnessed make it through the daunting marathon were Rachel Barton Pine and Kyung Wha Chung. So much for the weaker sex.
But the offer was still awfully hard to resist… and I frankly did not even try. In fact, I was so much looking forward to it that last week I accidentally took my Christian Tetzlaff concert ticket to gain admittance to my Joshua Bell concert. So many violinists, so little time.
Christian Tetzlaff may be one of the most acclaimed violinists of our times, but he is not the flashy type. And sure enough, as soon as he had placed himself in the middle of the bare stage in the full and hushed auditorium on Wednesday night, he went right down to business with the Sonata No. 2 in A Minor and let the music gloriously speak for itself for the next two hours. As he was working his way through the first piece on the program with uncompromising steadfastness, the most outstanding movement for me had to be the deeply expressive Andante, which beautifully stood out between the complex Fugue and the light-hearted Allegro.
Although I was lucky enough to hear the Partita No. 2 in D Minor played with supreme poise by Anne-Sophie Mutter a few weeks ago, I was more than ready for Tetzlaff’s take on it. The four relatively short dances preceding the Chaconne inevitably appear lightweight compared to the Himalaya the last movement represents, but they still stood out proudly on their own. Seemingly impregnable, the Chaconne nevertheless had to bend to Tetzlaff’s unwavering grip and unfolded with force and brilliance.
The Chaconne may be more naturally engaging, and therefore more popular, but the Fugue of the Sonata No. 3 in C Major is notoriously longer and more difficult to tame. When a consummate virtuoso like Tetzlaff handles it though, the result turns out memorable for its laser-like execution and the pure musical enjoyment it conveys. The other three movements were just about as gripping, in particular the immaculately serene Largo, which expertly balanced the intensity of the Fugue.
I’ve always found the exuberant Partita No. 3 in E Major bitter-sweet, bitter because it is the last leg of one amazing journey, and sweet because its French flavor never fails to tickle me. It hits the ground running with the kind of spectacular fireworks usually reserved for the grand finale in the Preludio, features the fun little Gavotte en Rondeau that has since taken a life of its own, especially as a concert encore, and generally offers exciting dance-inspired movements. Tetzlaff concluded his remarkable performance with plenty of momentum left and earned a rousing vacation from the ecstatic audience.