William Ford | 22 OCT 2019
Tropical storm Nestor had its way with the Atlanta area on Saturday. It brought needed drenching rain to an area that has just recently endured 90-days of plus 90-degree temperatures with little moisture. In spite of the storm, some 100 or so classical music aficionados made their way to Morrow, GA, which is the home of Clayton State University (CSU) and its wonderful Spivey Hall. This 492-seat concert hall sits in a bucolic setting, amongst the large trees that overlook the campus lake. Even more notable is that Spivey has some of the best acoustics to be found anywhere in the Atlanta area, if not the entire state. It is decorated in a kind of post-modern neo-baroque style with a wooden main floor that likely adds to the acoustic joy.
At the risk of belaboring a metaphor, Spivey hosted another storm Saturday evening: that of the pianist Lars Vogt and violinist Christian Tetzlaff. These German-born virtuosi are world-class performers and they applied their skills to a program that required enormous skill and musicality.
Brahms’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op 78 was written in 1879 for his friend violinist Joseph Joachim. It borrows thematic material from two of the composer’s songs, “Regenlied” and “Nachklang,” with the former meaning- you guessed it — “Rain Storm” that has become the popular identifier of the Sonata. The composer wrote the piece after the death of Clara Schumann’s son, who was Brahms’ godson. The piece is unmistakably Brahmsian, with rich melodies tinged by more than a bit of sadness. In fact, the second movement has the rain motif that morphs into a funeral march. The sonata is a fine example of the composer’s Romantic sensibilities layered upon a fairly conservative fast, slow, fast three-moment framework.
Tetzlaff’s violin has a sweet golden timbre that is a perfect fit for the music. It is never strident or harsh and it blossomed in Spivey’s transparency. Tetzlaff has a powerful bowing technique where he uses the space between the fingerboard and bridge to add nuance and color, while simultaneously adjusting his grip to add even more shading to the music. Vogt, for his part, is not prone to physical histrionics at the keyboard, so even when muscularity is called for, he draws attention to the music and not to himself. These superb musicians provided a deeply moving performance that shared the composer’s heartache without being overwrought or hyperemotional.
Shostakovich’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, Op. 134 was written in 1968, some fifteen years after the death of Joseph Stalin, who often seemed a dark motive force behind some of the composer’s works. The introduction begins with an ominous tone-row theme that is manipulated throughout the moment. It has a contemporary kind of lyricism that can be unnerving. The second movement is harsh and abrasive, but the composer builds to a climax that is energizing and powerful, making incredible demands of the musicians’ technical abilities, especially the violin, where passages of rapid-fire double stops are required. The tension was so thick in the hall that premature applause erupted at the end of the harrowing movement. The final movement’s structure is similar to a theme and variations, with the violin introducing the theme pizzicato. Multiple re-working of the theme occurs throughout the movement. Seeing and hearing Tetzlaff perform this furious music was staggering; his technical skills tamed the Shostakovich beast with seemingly deceptive ease. Vogt is a perfect musical partner, employing the piano’s percussive nature but never overwhelming the critical violin part. These two artists seem totally in-sync with each other and the music.
György Kurtág’s Three Pieces, Op. 14a was composed in 1979. It is a brief three-movement work that seemed to be over before it started. The music is spare and far less emotionally charged than either Brahms or Shostakovich, although its lineage is much closer to the latter than the former. The very brief third movement mostly features the violin and again Teztlaff dispatched it with ease. Yet before the audience could show its appreciation, the violinist scurried off the stage, leaving his partner to explain that Tetzlaff had forgotten to bring the score for the next piece with him.
The almost overlooked score was for Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, composed in 1927. The first of the three-movement work is labeled Allegretto and is fairly typical of the composer’s “Impressionist” style. The rapid piano notes scurry while the violin is more lyrical, providing a contrast between an instrument that can sustain notes and one that cannot. The next two movements are where Ravel begins to demonstrate his interest and love for American jazz. The second movement, labeled “Blues,” starts with a pizzicato introduction that eventually is replaced with a bluesy syncopated section, requiring violin slides, only to then be replaced by a piano-dominated section. It ends quietly with both instruments quietly fading into silence. The final movement is a sort of latter-day “Flight of the Bumblebee” with a furiously buzzing violin playing again a piano bass line that sounds surprisingly like Gershwin. As throughout the entire program, Tetzlaff and Vogt seem unfazed by the difficulty of the music and never seem to lack the energy to fully engage with it. In response to numerous curtain calls, the duo performed the second movement of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata no 7 in C minor, Op. 30.
This was a top-notch concert performed by two musicians at the peak of their artistry. It’s rare to hear such talent, especially in such an acoustically sublime space. Thanks to the Walter and Emilie Spivey Foundation and Clayton State University for making this concert possible. ■