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Christian Tetzlaff Stands and Delivers

December 4, 2010

Cal Performances

The stage at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus is large enough to fit a full orchestra. But on Saturday night, one man stood alone on the stage with his violin, dressed in black, lit by a spotlight against a solid dark backdrop. No piano accompaniment or even a music stand — the solitary Christian Tetzlaff, playing the complete Sonatas and Partitas by J.S. Bach in a recital presented by Cal Performances.

Hearing all six pieces is a completely different experience from hearing them separately in a standard, well-rounded program complemented by, say, a Classical piece, a Romantic piece, and maybe something modern. Immersed in Bach’s abstract musical language for an entire evening, a listener finds the narrative of these interconnected pieces unfolding to tell an epic story.

It starts dark and sad with the G-minor sonata, rises in a possessed fury in the B-minor partita, turns inward for the A-minor sonata, and fights an immense struggle with God and the world in the D-minor partita. Only after the famous Chaconne, which Tetzlaff referred to as “devastating” and “tormenting” in an interview, does the protagonist rise out of the ashes. After four minor-key pieces, the C-major sonata slowly ascends before finally reaching the heavenly sparkle of the E-major partita.

A lengthy concert of nothing but Bach’s gnarly notes on one instrument may seem off-putting to all but the staunchest Bach-o-philes. But just as there is nothing strange about going to the opera to hear multiple hours of music by one composer, the performance of Bach’s entire oeuvre of unaccompanied violin music felt like, well, an opera.

Bach provides sufficient variety of violin techniques to keep every movement interesting. He embeds enough character differences to populate a small German village. And Tetzlaff’s playing is captivating enough to carry an entire evening all by himself.

All in One

The sonatas and partitas are notoriously difficult: Bach condenses enough musical material for an entire orchestra into a single violin. Subsequent generations’ attempts at orchestrating these pieces have always robbed them of their densely concentrated power; it is the struggle that gives these pieces their force.

To fit full harmonies into what is usually a monophonic instrument, Bach litters the musical lines with “quadruple stops” — playing all four strings at once. The challenge is not only to finger each string with the left hand in brutal fistfuls of intonation work, but also to engage all four strings with the bow, making each string speak. Lesser violinists tend to swipe and whip their way through the dense forest of chords, and then try to fit arpeggiated melodies and fugue subjects in between.

Tetzlaff was not afraid to crack the whip when necessary (in the B-minor Bourrée or in several places in the Chaconne), but more often he was able to caress these chords as if he had gentle lute accompaniment. When not executing enormous chords, Tetzlaff traversed Bach’s topography of unending notes by soaring high and diving low, sometimes dipping into extremely soft dynamic levels that (amazingly) sounded crystal clear.

It was in these soft sections that the entire hall was held breathless. Every turn of the page in the program book and every cough or unwrapping of a cough drop was reproached by a chorus of stares. In a moment that momentarily killed the mood, Tetzlaff walked off stage mid-partita to complain about a buzzing or humming from the electricity or heating system. Whiny diva behavior, or exacting perfectionism? It is only through the latter that anybody would be able to accomplish the feat that we were witness to in this concert.

Throughout, hardcore early-music enthusiasts might have been disappointed that Tetzlaff paid no particular attention to Baroque performance practice “rules,” opting instead for a sustained sound and no extra embellishments. And, despite the seriousness of the occasion, humor was not absent. Whistles, gasps, and moans resounded from around the hall after particularly brilliant movements.

Performing just one partita requires a great deal of stamina. For this reason the concert started at 6 o’clock, with an hour-long intermission for everyone to refuel and refresh. (Even so, fatigue started to catch up with Tetzlaff in the last partita: a loss of sound, a missed note here and there, phrases that ran away.) Cal Performances provided dinner at the hall, and nearby restaurants also experienced a sudden gush of hurried concertgoers grabbing a bite to eat while discussing the performance.

Berkeley, that community of academics, was the perfect place for a concert like this. This is where, several years ago, I heard a performance of Bach’s complete Inventions and Sinfonias and then the complete “Well-Tempered Clavier.” It is most worthwhile to partake in these genre-busting marathons — to listen (or even play) a composer’s complete cycle in one session. The endeavor truly gives a sense of the composer’s world and technique, as nothing else does.

Be'eri Moalem ( is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.


I found Tetzlaff's performance a great disappointment. In the first half, the first two movements of the first Sonata were very uneven, and totally lacking in focus. He seemed to get control of himself in the third movement, and did reasonably well through the rest of that half - nothing exceptional, but acceptable. In the second half, he began roughly again, and then lost it entirely with his walkoff. What he should have done was to have someone else come on stage to explain and apologize while he recomposed himself for several minutes, then restart from the beginning of the second Partita. Instead, he tried to start from where he had left off, and the result was a disaster. He did not regain his composure until the last movement of the third Sonata, which meant that both the Chaconne and the long Fugue were dreadful - choppy, uneven, unfocused. Throughout I felt he emphasized virtuosity at the expense of continuity, so that I was never able to relax and experience the music, being so constantly bombarded with his attempts to impress. Only in the third Partita did I feel he finally relaxed, and simply let the music speak.

I agree with the commenter above. All of the faster movements (the Gigue in the D Minor Partita, the Allegro Assai in the C Major Sonata both immediately come to mind) were taken at such a breakneck pace that they simply become a wave of notes that lack direction, phrasing, and thus, no real meaning. The flash obviously impressed some, but my friends and I were all not impressed beyond his virtuosity; then again, I guess there are those who prefer action movies over dramas.

While I understand the order is the most common programming, I wish he ended with something other than the E Major Partita. The Chaconne is irrefutably the mightiest movement of the whole set, and after that, the C Major Sonata and E Major Partita just seem like a weak denouement to the concert.

For the price of admission, you can't complain. I admired Tetzlaff's mental and physical stamina to be able to play all these pieces in the span of 3 hours. But I was hoping to have a performance that transcends and, unfortunately, that did not happen.

Wow critics can be really harsh... To me it was a great live performance, not perfect but definitely not "disappointing". How many violinists on this planet can reach this level? Can you?