Violinist Christian Tetzlaff is that rare musical phenomenon, a brilliant virtuoso with an adventurous mind, a probing intellect, and a passionate heart. The 37-year-old's adventurous spirit shows in his wide-ranging repertoire and daring programming: he burst upon the international scene with the famously‹or infamously‹difficult Schoenberg Concerto in 1988 at the age of 22, and made his New York recital debut in 1993 with unaccompanied works by Bach, Bartók, and Ysaÿe. His intellectual rigor and curiosity show in his pursuit of historical sources, musical and extra-musical, resulting, for example, in a very unusual, individualistic approach to Bach's unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas (one of his specialties), which explores every element of their composition‹structural, religious, and personal. And his passionate commitment to music speaks through his playing.
Tetzlaff attributes his independence of mind to growing up in a music-loving family (his three siblings are also musicians) and to the influence of his main teacher, Uwe-Martin Haiberg. "He was a wonderful player, musician, and teacher," Tetzlaff says. "I began to study with him when I was 14 and that was when I got serious, although I had started both violin and piano when I was six. But I didn't even know the violin literature. When I studied a concerto, I didn't have anyone else's interpretation in my ear, so I figured out many things for myself. Maybe the results weren't always completely satisfactory, but they were absolutely my own."
His career, too, took off comparatively late. "When I was 21, a very good German agent heard me and offered to represent me," he says. "He got me engagements and things sort of snowballed." However, Tetzlaff has always managed his career very carefully, balancing solo and chamber music performances, and, most remarkably, his concert schedule and his family life. "It's quite simple," he explains. "For every week I work, I must have a week off, and now that I have three children, I really need to be at home, not only to see them grow, but to help. Of course, this means turning down engagements I would actually like to accept, but there are still a lot left, and right now they are getting better and better."
Tetzlaff, who will also perform at Mostly Mozart 2004 this summer, returns to New York's Alice Tully Hall on April 22 and 25 for two programs that combine Bartók and Janácek, two composers who, he feels, "create a thematic center through their shared interest in folk music, yet are sufficiently different to provide stylistic diversity. Unfortunately," he continues, "they did not write enough sonatas for violin and piano to fill two concerts, so we are including Bartók's Contrasts [with clarinetist Martin Fröst], and it seemed natural to add Kurtág's Hommage á Robert Schumann since it is for the same instruments."
This will be Tetzlaff's first New York appearance with pianist Lars Vogt, whom he met about ten years ago but feels he has known forever. "He is my other favorite pianist," he says, referring also to Leif Ove Andsnes, who was his partner for many years and still performs with him in Europe and on recordings.
Tetzlaff and Vogt, as well as their families, have become close friends. The two artists began playing together at the Spannungen Chamber Music Festival, founded in the late 1990s by Vogt, its artistic director, at a water power plant in Heimbach, Germany. The word "Spannung" means voltage or tension and reflects the Festival's industrial as well as artistic setting. "When friends get together to play," explains Tetzlaff, "there is a different kind of tension, of spontaneity, than when established ensembles perform. It's a wonderful Festival with wonderful players; I go there every summer. When we looked for a location, the best place we found was this power plant. The scenery is lovely, the concert hall seats 500, just right for chamber music, and the sound is beautiful. It's an active plant, but they turn the turbines off for the concerts!"
The Spannungen Festival has borne permanent fruit in the form of numerous live recordings on the EMI label. The latest three-CD set, taken at the 2002 festival, comprises the complete Brahms duo sonatas‹piano and violin, piano and cello, and piano and clarinet‹along with some Schumann and Berg, played by Vogt, Tetzlaff, cellist Boris Pergamenschikow, and clarinetist Sabine Meyer. The players seem inspired by the surroundings, the atmosphere, and each other.
Tetzlaff's own recent releases include the Tchaikovsky Concerto, the complete Bartók Sonatas (with Andsnes), and the complete violin music of Sibelius. The Beethoven Concerto is coming up shortly. It seems clear that both the young virtuoso's playing and his career have hit a new peak.
"There is also another very good development," Tetzlaff says, "in an area I've never talked about. For many years, I have had pain in my left fingertips, especially the first finger, which gets the hardest wear. At first I did not acknowledge it, but it kept getting worse. I had to curtail my practicing, and eventually had to play with a glove on the first finger. In fact, I recorded the entire Sibelius disc that way. The doctors could not help, and of course only a violinist would even notice this touch-sensitivity. It was very bad for five or six years, but now it has suddenly gotten much better all by itself. My fingers no longer hurt, I can practice much more, and play without pain. I feel reborn."
Indeed, the spontaneous cure seems miraculous, but so do the fortitude and determination to persevere, maintaining the highest standards through daunting challenges.
Edith Eisler is a violinist, teacher, and chamber music coach who writes for Strings, Amazon.com, EPulse, and New York Concert Review.