Duke Performances and the Chamber Arts Society brought German violinist Christian Tetzlaff (b.1966) to Reynolds Industries Theater for an all-Bach program that awed the substantial crowd that heard it. The listening was as intense as much of the playing: one could easily have heard the proverbial pin drop, had one fallen, and for sure one could often hear the exceptionally well-maintained air-handling system working in the background during the quietest passages in the music.

The concert replaced an earlier recital scrubbed due to adverse weather in New York that precluded air travel.

If it was all Bach and involved a solo violinist, it could only have been the Sonatas and Partitas, S. 1001-6 – in this instance, all of them. Tetzlaff is renowned for his interpretations of these core works and has twice made commercial recordings of them. They are touchstone pieces for violinists, just as the Suites, S. 1007-12, are for cellists, and the organ and harpsichord works are for keyboardists. It’s hard to imagine any serious practitioner of any of these instruments letting a day pass without playing some Bach. It’s a fact that artists’ views of their most-loved music change over time. It’s also a fact that no two performances are alike. And finally, it’s a fact that live performances are always more engaging than recordings.

By any standard, Tetzalaff’s concert was a remarkable event. “Once in a lifetime,” someone said. “Not your grandfather’s Bach,” said another. Those are not just opinions but facts. The concert was expected to consume 3 and 3/4 hours, including breaks and an extended intermission, but no one seems to have consulted the artist on the duration: he took negligible breaks, shortened the intermission, and dispatched the set of three sonatas and three partitas in an hour less time than anticipated. It wasn’t all rushed, and the speed didn’t significantly impede clarity – this artist is a whole-body violinist with astonishing technique, so there were very few passages that were unclear. He took off like a bat out of hell in several places, and more than once his rapid tempi prompted chuckles from listeners. All this reminded me of Edmund Hillary, who was said to have climbed Everest because it is there. Why does Tetzalaff play some of these things so fast? Perhaps because he can. Anyway, it wasn’t grandfather’s Bach – and some may have missed the breathing room around some of Bach’s more illuminating phrases.

But there was plenty of illumination, too. These pieces suggest manna for the gods – or communion for mere mortals. They really are musical and spiritual food, as Landowska said of some of the keyboard works. The slow movements were never too slow, and without exception they were richly insightful. Tetzalaff managed the fugues remarkably well, too, avoiding the heavier-handed emphases others have sometimes projected. Certainly for a modern-instrument player (he is said to use an instrument by contemporary luthier Peter Greiner, b.1966), he made all the important points clear.* The Chaconne, in the Second Partita, was a truly spellbinding representation of Bach’s genius.

The sonatas were uniformly excellent, and there can have been few complaints elsewhere, although I found the second number on the program – the Partita in B Minor – somewhat disjointed and not nearly all-of-a-piece like the others. Even there, however, the artist’s commitment was readily apparent, and it is more than likely that this is a minority view.

Did we say he played the entire program from memory?

There’s much to be said for hearing all these works in one long sitting. The program is no longer than many short operas. The intensity of the listening can tire but the exhilaration of the experience is generally a more than ample offset. There weren’t any snores (or cell phone beeps), and few left before the very end.

So the music was of an exalted nature and the playing was for the most part highly refined. At the end, though, the dam broke and the crowd’s appreciation was manifest in waves of applause that elicited many trips back to center stage for this remarkable visiting artist.

P.S. Tetzlaff discusses these works in a YouTube clip recorded before a 2009 NY recital – click here.

*I am not convinced that a modern instrument is best for these scores. For a different point of view, I recommend Ingrid Matthew’s HIP recording. And while we are on the subject of alternate approaches, let me recommend for readers’ considerations transcriptions of the Chaconne for piano by Brahms, for the left hand part 1  & part 2 and Busoni (for both hands)  for orchestra by Alfredo Casella, and for guitar.