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A Violinist Plays Ugly


Christian TetzlaffI'm not sure how many of you all out there read Jeremy Eichler's profile in The New Yorker on the German violinist Christian Tetzloff. If you have, good on you. If you haven't, you should pick up a copy soon. Most likely the article – and Tetzlaff's approach to music – will challenge your notion of how a violin should sound. However, it's an exciting and important challenge, no matter what you decide about Tetzlaff. Tetzlaff is an well-respected soloist, but he's not a soloist who's found success and recognition by being flamboyant, a crowd-pleaser, or a crossover star. Rather, his success comes from his ability to play "an unusally wide range of tones, from the refined to wild" (Eichler). To put not too fine a point on it, Tetzlaff even once told a a group of students, "Beauty is the enemy of expression!"

Even though many fellow musicians admire Tetzlaff, critics have occassionally been impatient with his playing. This is, of course, because Tetzlaff is upsetting the conventions of the instrument. If Tetzlaff wants to include harsher sounds in his playing, it comes with a price: beauty, and perhaps the ire of listeners who expect the Romantic composers to be played a certain way:

Most important, he [Tetzlaff] refuses to embrace what might be called the School of the Big Tone: the broad, velvety sound, sustained with uniformly wide vibrato, that many listeners in the age of Izhak Perlman have come to think is how a violin should sound. Tetzlaff's palette extends to harsh or crushed tones, even to sounds that he has purposefully leached of color. And older French musician of my aquaitance dislikes Tetzlaff's playing precisely because such ugliness is allowed in the door.

Rather than exhaust Eichler's article, I want to end to send you toward it with a hint of its praise for Tetzlaff. As Eichler demonstrates, audiences do respond to Tetzlaff. Eichler ends the essay with a description of Tetzlaff playing a Bach concert in a medium-sized church (and only two-thirds full) in Dresden. Eichler expresses a quiet but intense admiration for Tetzlaff's playing, and he senses that most of the concertgoers feel the same way as him: 

A marathon Bach recital could easily try the endurance of people seated in hard pews, but the concertgoers in Dresden sat in rapt silence. I attributed this to a distinctive aspect of Tetzlaff's charisma. Onstage, many violin soloists adopt a confident swagger, but in Dresden Tetzlaff, as whenever he plays Bach, seemed to expose layer after layer of vulnerability, creating an atmosphere of naked confession.

I'm squirming a little bit in my seat as I write this, but I can't imagine a better concert. Beauty is only one register of expression, and it's a shame that artists often stay there too long. I can imagine other responses to Tetzlaff though. What do you all think? How central is beauty to your playing? How important is a wide range of expression?  


Great question to ponder! My first reaction is that expression is a broad term, and one aspect of the the performer/player's job is to reflect the ideas that the composer is trying to share through his composition. Many composers are trying to express beauty, so being able to play beautifully is pretty important! But they are also trying to share a wide range of emotions. One goal for players is to develop and utilize good technique so they can create a variety of sounds, and thus get in touch with whatever feelings the composer is trying to convey in the different sections of the piece. This should also allow the audience to experience the range of emotions that the composer is writing about.
Posted @ Thursday, September 06, 2012 2:45 PM by Carol Warshaw
Thanks for your comment, Carol! You're right: technique comes first, and for Tetzlaff (lucky guy!) it came pretty easily. But another ability that Tetzlaff seems to have is musical empathy: "At a time when the modern conservatory system has rendered technical virtuosity a commonplace, Tetzlaff is distinguished by his deep musical empathy -- his ability to open a window onto a composer's inner life." I think that's what you're talking about too!
Posted @ Thursday, September 06, 2012 4:13 PM by Joe Chapman
Loved the Article! I believe that Tetzlaff's approach is great. Being able to produce such an extreme range of colors while providing with a good virtuosity playing makes him a revolutionist. Not everybody dares but he does it and succeed!Good for him!
Posted @ Friday, September 07, 2012 3:46 PM by Cesar Aviles
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