Violinist Christian Tetzlaff is a legend in Cincinnati for his performance in October 2004 of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin -- complete and from memory -- in a single concert (with two 15-minute intermissions and a break for dinner). It was no surprise, then, that his concert for Chamber Music Cincinnati January 28, in Werner Recital Hall at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, was sold out -- with a line at the door hoping for tickets from no-shows.
Except for Bach’s Sonata in C Major (BWV 1005), Tetzlaff brought a completely different program with him this time, one that delved into the 20th-century repertoire for solo violin, from Eugène Ysaÿe to Béla Bartók and György Kurtág. Again, it was a demonstration of Tetzlaff’s supreme command of the violin, with extended techniques not current in Bach’s day, such as artificial harmonics, left-hand pizzicato and extreme high pitches. As for memorization, only the Ysaÿe and Kurtág were performed with the music.
Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe has a Cincinnati connection, having been music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1918-22. Inspired by Bach’s example, he composed six solo violin sonatas, each dedicated to one of his contemporaries. The Sonata No. 1 in G Minor was inscribed to Joseph Szigeti. (Violinist Joshua Bell performed Ysaÿe’s Sonata No. 3 in G Minor dedicated to Georges Enesco, on a Constella Festival recital in November, 2011 in Cincinnati.) It is an expansive work, beginning “Grave,” with broadly spaced arpeggios before retreating into soft tremolos, played “sul ponticello” (“on” or next to the bridge). The work’s noble, Bachian ancestry showed clearly in the “Fugato.” By contrast, the “Allegretto poco scherzo” was softly playful, and Tetzlaff was all over the violin in the aptly designated "con brio" finale.
Bach’s own Sonata in C Major (BWV 10005) followed the Ysaÿe. Remarkable here were Tetzlaff’s exquisite economy of bowing and in the “Fuga,”his distribution of the weight of the bow so as to clearly define the movement’s structural lines. After the more sober “Largo,” he took off gleefully in the concluding “Allegro assai,” which was wholly dance-like and nimble.
After intermission, Tetzlaff intrigued his listeners with excerpts from Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s "Signs, Games and Messages." These aphoristic pieces, small bites if you will, belong to an ongoing series, each with a message or dedicatee, which may or may not be explicit. Tetzlaff chose from a set of 24 for solo violin composed between 1989 and 2004. They included "Homage à J.S. Bach," a Bachian snippet in modern language; ”Homage Tamás Blum,” wherein Tetzlaff vaulted into the violin’s stratosphere before coming to an abrupt, quiet end; and “Doloroso,” which opened up melodically from minor-second intervals and then returned, leaving a heartfelt, poignant impression; and ”Zank-Kromatisch," which was decidedly the opposite, i.e. brash and outgoing.
Tetzlaff closed with Bartók’s 1944 Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz. 117, another work inspired by Bach. Tetzlaff met its fierce challenges with ease and conviction, whether the extreme ranges and multiple stopping of the opening “Tempo di ciaconna” (which ends softly, as if from exhaustion), or the dramatic pyrotechnics of the “Fuga.” The third movement, “Melodia,” proceeded on kittens’ paws, its placid melody muted for a time. There was a feeling of “having arrived” in the “Presto” finale, which began with rapid, muted noodling before Tetzlaff sounded the first big statement “senza sordino” (without mute). He brought all his considerable resources to bear for a thrilling, multi-colored conclusion, ending on a bright C Major chord. There were two encores, by Paganini and Bach, whose spirit hovered over the entire program.