Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt serve opaque Brahms along with some Webern

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Lars Vogt & Christian Tetzlaff

All three Brahms violin sonatas in one concert seems almost like too much of a treat – what could possibly top such a program of violin music? And yet, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt proved in Sunday afternoon’s Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall that there is much room for originality left in the world of classical music, even for – and perhaps especially for – interpretations of late Romantic music.

Tetzlaff started off the first phrase of the G Major Sonata, Op. 78 with a refreshingly nonchalant airiness, supported by breezy portato chords in Vogt’s part. Yet this general weightlessness – which would reach earthier substance only in the third sonata (the most fiery) – operated more at the local level, at spaces between and within notes, yet not between phrases. And although the remarkable levity and uniquely spontaneous mode of performance that the two musicians achieved was stimulating and never allowed for a moment of wandering attention, the interestingness soon turned out to be ambiguous – the one quality that Brahms is so easily prone to reflecting, are balances ever to be one bit off.

The balance, indeed, is what caused most of the problems. Despite Vogt’s beautiful sound, especially in dark passages such as the E-flat minor from the second movement of op. 78 and parts of Op. 108’s first movement, his hesitating expressiveness, on two levels, was not complementary enough for Tetzlaff’s airiness. Firstly, the too-frequent pausing and decrescendo before downbeats, and in the middle of longer cantabile phrases, caused Brahms’s clear architectural construction of phrases to fall flat. The specifically Brahmsian melodic and rhythmic layers were clouded over by unclear realizations of hemiolas, and, through deliberate attempts to de-thicken the textures, quite oppositely than intended, by glazing of textural outlines. Secondly, the holding back of sound for purposes of not “covering up” Tetzlaff – reaching a point of ridiculousness in the first theme of the last movement of Op. 108, where the piano has the melody, and where any possible filtering of energy disrupts the natural affect of the movement’s heat – gave the balance not clarity, but a certain cardboard consistency.

The players’ spontaneous nonchalance was perhaps best matched to the sweetness of the Op. 100 A Major Sonata’s grazioso last movement – a subtle “anti-finale,” the opposite of Op. 108’s grand conclusion. Tetzlaff’s lush expressiveness here, however, did not carry over to what should have been the highlight of the concert – the potentially breathtaking slow movement of the D minor sonata Op. 108. The passionate double-stop suspensions did not have enough poignancy, highlighted instead through a forceful kind of expressiveness; more tasteful slides, broader timing, in general more in-the-moment emotionality, would have made the movement stand out against the backdrop of the otherwise also perfect Brahms movements as their crowning gem. Gorgeous moments came through at endings, however, such as in the first movement of Op. 108 and the last of Op. 78.

More appropriate to the performers’ frame of mind turned out to be Webern’s Op. 7 pieces, which they performed twice, once in-between the first two Brahms sonatas in the first half, and once more right after intermission, blending (without applause) into the last sonata. There was no ambiguity of gestures or affects here. And the decision to play the piece twice, although perhaps strange to some in the audience, made sense in light of making it more accessible to a broader public — as this is, after all, music not easily digestible on a first hearing.

Undeniably the best moment of the night came with the encore, the last movement of Dvorak’s Sonatina, Op. 100 – a perfect bookend of G Major to match the concert’s G Major Brahms beginning. The charming dance from before the second movement of Brahms’s Op. 100 — a bit nervously realized — bloomed fully in Tetzlaff’s and Vogt’s playing through Dvorak’s folky tunes, concluding the afternoon with playful energy.

As for the Brahms: if these two remarkable performers could present it so uniquely, there is yet hope that their future performances will be just as original, yet less ambiguous and a bit more appropriate for Brahms’s multi-layered style.

End

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