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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.