Christian Tetzlaff: Don't Mind Me, I'm Just The Violinist

Jul 26, 2018
Originally published on July 26, 2018 6:51 pm

Christian Tetzlaff is one of today's most in-demand violinists. But he didn't reach the top ranks with backing from a big record label or with promotion from a high-powered marketing firm. The German musician plays music, he says, so the listener can commune with the composer one-on-one. His latest album features the two Violin Concertos by Béla Bartók with Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Tetzlaff isn't interested in glam, glitz or hype. He doesn't do social media, nothing to promote himself. You wonder if he really cares if he's popular or not. What he does care about – and it's clear in this new recording – is what Bartók is trying to tell us in his violin concertos.

Bartók was only 26 in 1908 when he completed his First Violin Concerto. He wrote it for a beautiful, young violinist, Stefi Geyer, who didn't return his amorous feelings and never performed the work. It was 1958, more than a dozen years after Bartók's death, when the concerto finally received its premiere.

On the surface, the concerto is a portrait of Geyer. It opens with her theme, a four-note strand of musical DNA that will return in many guises.

But the concerto is also a musical document of the young Hungarian composer searching for his voice. Tetzlaff actually helps Bartók find that voice with a performance so dramatically detailed that it practically speaks directly to you. Like a great stage actor, Tetzlaff doesn't want to be the superstar here. He is the conduit. He becomes all of Bartók's frustration and passion.

The sweet, high-flying melody in the opening movement is played with the utmost tenderness, tinged with heartache. Later, Bartók portrays Geyer as a playful virtuoso. And while showing off is antithetical to every fiber in Tetzlaff's body, the music does allow him to calmly flaunt his agility, range of color and deep understanding behind the notes.

Tetzlaff never draws attention to himself. You can tell by his choice of violin and what he does with it. He doesn't play a multi-million dollar Stradivarius and he doesn't try to project a traditionally huge violin tone.

A good example is the gorgeous opening of Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2. Listen to Anne-Sophie Mutter's recording and you hear a massive tone, luxurious in calories. And her phrasing seems to say, "Look at me. I'm nailing this!"

Switch to Tetzlaff and the tone is lean, yet strong. He doesn't get in the way of the music's swagger and beauty.

Bartók may have been searching for his style – and for love – when he wrote his First Concerto, but by the time he wrote his Second, 30 years later in 1938, he was a veteran composer – and a husband and father.

Style-wise, earlier in Tetzlaff's career, he may have been doing some searching himself. With his clean shave, short hair and precisely rectangular wire-rim glasses, he looked like a typical classical music nerd. These days, the vibe is more classic rocker, with a leather jacket, goatee and wavy locks that fall past his shoulders.

It's a more relaxed look that says "I'm comfortable in my own skin." Or, the skin of just about any composer this distinctive violinist chooses to play.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Christian Tetzlaff is one of today's most in-demand violinists.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 2, SZ. 112: II. ANDANTE TRANQUILLO")

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

He says he plays music so the listener can commune with the composer. On his latest album, the German violinist performs concertos by Bela Bartok. NPR's Tom Huizenga has this review.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Christian Tetzlaff isn't interested in glam, glitz or hype. He doesn't do social media, nothing to promote himself. You wonder if he really cares if he's popular or not. What he does care about - and it's clear in this new recording - is what Bela Bartok is trying to tell us in his two violin concertos.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1, SZ. 36: II. ALLEGRO GIOCOSO")

HUIZENGA: That's Bartok's first violin concerto. He was only 26 in 1908, when he wrote it for a beautiful young violinist who didn't return his amorous feelings and never performed the concerto. It premiered more than a dozen years after Bartok died. On the surface, the concerto is a portrait of her. It opens with her theme, a four-note strand of musical DNA that will return in many guises.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1, SZ. 36: I. ANDANTE SOSTENUTO")

HUIZENGA: But the concerto was also a musical document of the young Hungarian composer searching for his voice. Christian Tetzlaff actually helps Bartok find that voice with a dramatically detailed performance. Like a great stage actor, Tetzlaff doesn't want to be the superstar. He is the conduit. He becomes all of Bartok's frustration and passion.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1, SZ. 36: I. ANDANTE SOSTENUTO")

HUIZENGA: In the second half of the Concerto No. 1, Bartok portrays his love interest as a playful virtuoso. And while Tetzlaff's not a show-off, this music does allow him to calmly flaunt his agility, range of color and deep understanding behind the notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1, SZ. 36: II. ALLEGRO GIOCOSO")

HUIZENGA: Tetzlaff never draws attention to himself. You can tell by his choice of violin and what he does with it. He doesn't play a multimillion-dollar Stradivarius, and he doesn't try to project a traditionally huge violin tone. Let's do a little comparison with the beautiful opening of Bartok's second violin concerto. First, we'll hear a performance by Anne-Sophie Mutter. Her tone is massive and luxurious, lots of calories, and her phrasing says, look at me; I'm nailing this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANNE-SOPHIE MUTTER PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 2, SZ. 112: I. ALLEGRO NON TROPPO")

HUIZENGA: Now here's Tetzlaff. His tone is lean yet strong, and he doesn't get in the way of the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN TETZLAFF PERFORMANCE OF BELA BARTOK'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 2, SZ. 112: I. ALLEGRO NON TROPPO")

HUIZENGA: Bartok may have been searching for his style and for love when he wrote his first concerto. But by the time he wrote his second 30 years later, he was a veteran composer and husband and father, just like Tetzlaff. Style-wise, earlier in his career, Tetzlaff looked like a typical classical music nerd - clean-shaved, short hair and rectangular wire-rim glasses. These days he looks more like a classic rocker - leather jacket, goatee and wavy locks that fall past his shoulders. It's a more relaxed look that says, I'm comfortable in my own skin or the skin of just about any composer Tetzlaff chooses to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The album is "Bartok's Two Violin Concertos" played by Christian Tetzlaff with Hannu Lintu conducting the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. Our reviewer was NPR's Tom Huizenga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.