On this beat I hear a goodly portion of new music, some of it from the edgy and puzzling end of the spectrum and some of it more predictable and comfortable. But I am always amazed when infrequently heard works from 100 years ago strike me as fresh and as challenging as any newly minted contemporary composition.
Violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt offered a remarkable and stimulating duo recital Saturday (May 9) for the La Jolla Music Society. They paired Bela Bartók’s First Violin Sonata (1921) with Anton Webern’s Four Pieces, Op. 7 (1910), surrounding them with more familiar sonatas by Mozart and Brahms.
I cannot recall a duo with a more congruent, astonishingly integrated approach to this wide spectrum of repertory. Keeping every phrase radiantly focused and brimming with expectation, they commanded the audience’s attention, and, even though this end-of-the-season crowd was on the thin side, the shouts of approval from throughout Sherwood Auditorium after each piece sounded atypically vociferous for this well-mannered venue.
If Brahms’ D Minor Violin Sonata summed up the whole progression of Romantic chamber music—glorious, arched themes propelled by the universally accepted harmonic vocabulary—Bartók’s First Sonata for Violin and Piano upended those presumptions. His melodic sense was shaped by ancient modes of middle European folk song and dance, and his use of harmony was intended to astound his listener’s expectations, not fulfill them.
Tetzlaff and Vogt clearly reveled in Bartók’s expressionist turbulence, yet whether they unleashed the Sonata’s explosive declamations or caressed eerie, mysterious incantations, they were in complete control. Tetzlaff traded the brighter violin timbre that made his Mozart so rapturous for a darker—sometimes disturbingly so—color in tune with the composer’s Magyar melancholy. For a piano part so monumental, Vogt provided all the requisite brawn without overpowering his colleague. Because Bartók was a virtuoso pianist, his piano textures abound with daunting density, which Vogt translated with utmost assurance.
One aspect of Romantic practice Bartók did not change was the overall footprint of chamber music, and, indeed, his three-movement First Sonata for Violin and Piano lasts nearly 35 minutes, a typical length of a serious 19th-century chamber work. Webern, on the other hand, completely deconstructed Romantic musical vocabulary and shrank it to a handful of terse gestures. His “Four Pieces,” Op. 7, lasts only a few minutes: the first movement, marked “Very slowly” is all of 9 measures long. Vogt and Tetzlaff lavished immense care on every detail of these four exquisite gems, although the La Jolla audience was not prepared for Webern’s unusual style. Some of the audience was still restlessly shuffling programs and quieting down after the intermission break while the delicate, otherworldly first movement came and went on the Sherwood stage.
Nevertheless, it was rewarding to hear this repertory given such immaculate attention. Here in San Diego, it was a miracle just to hear Webern in a concert hall.
Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 454, displayed all the warmth, character and effervescence any serious chamber music aficionado could desire. The duo’s account of the slow middle movement suggested a reflective opera aria, full of pain and ecstasy deftly intermingled. Because Tetzlaff and Vogt were so convincing, I found myself glancing up to the top of the stage to catch the supertitles.
Ending a Sherwood Auditorium chamber concert with a rousing Brahms work is almost a cliché, but I would not have traded hearing this duo play the Brahms Third Violin Sonata in D Minor for the world. They gave full rein to Brahms’ rhapsodic impulses without shortchanging the elegance of his formal structures. A stylish array of instrumental colors, ardent phrasing, heroic dynamics, impeccable ensemble, judicious choice of tempos—in my book, this duo’s Brahms had it all.