Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Between the acts

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra does a lot of accompaniment, but it's still notably rare for it to have a soloist as inspired as Christian Tetzlaff was Sunday. He played Beethoven's violin concerto, a piece in which debutant Sergey Khachatryan made a huge impression at last summer's Mostly Mozart Festival. But Tetzlaff's success couldn't have been more different.

The young (now 21) Armenian's triumph was largely one of sound: his wondrous tone had so much color and breath in it that he could have spellbound the audience just playing scales. Tetzlaff lacks that resource. His tone, while not dull, is mostly notable for its focus: among world virtuosi it will never be renowned for warmth or amplitude. But this whitish sound is remarkably responsive within its scope, becoming vividly tense or mellow, outspoken or intimate at will. And Tetzlaff's interpretive instinct is to use all of these extremes, and similar varieties of impulse and rhythm, at the service of an aesthetic I can only describe as very German. (That is, he shares none of the postmodern approach to styles of sound that makes listening to his countrywoman Anne-Sophie Mutter sometimes feel decadent.)

He has, in other words, the tools for a great, dramatic -- Beethovenian -- performance of this great piece. And this is what actually happened. Tetzlaff was helped by James Levine's steady but responsive accompaniment (the considerably enlarged orchestra was transparent and balanced throughout, even with the soloist's love of the mp-ppp range) and an audience remarkably attentive even after an undernourished and apparently underrehearsed Brahms 3 and a new Charles Wuorinen piece of middling success. The dramatic element -- the dynamic of performer before audience -- that is a huge aspect of opera is not absent from instrumental performance, particularly before an operagoing audience. That the listeners were so present as to break into spontaneous applause after the concerto's first movement was no small cause of the day's success.

Tetzlaff, after a series of huge ovations, did share with Khachatryan the decision to play a bit of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas as an encore. Tetzlaff's first recording of these was not so much German and dramatic as needlessly romantic. Perhaps his new version -- apparently coming soon -- will be better. Meanwhile, now that they've hit the fifty-performance milestone, perhaps the Met could look into releasing some of the best of these Carnegie Hall outings onto Sirius: there's a searing 2001 Verdi Requiem (Fleming, Borodina, Giordani, Pape) that's still echoing in my head.

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I have noted that my primary sensation of music is of time; Tommasini's NYT review of this Tetzlaff/Met Orchestra concert seems to indicate the same about him. Interesting.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.