Interview with Christian Tetzlaff, on Beauty and Expression

February 3, 2020, 11:00 AM · For German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, no detail in a musical score is too tiny to examine for its expressive potential. His tireless pursuit of musical meaning and coherence has given him a reputation as a master interpreter, which serves him both as a soloist who performs about 100 concerts a year, and as a teacher who instructs top students at the Kronberg Academy near Frankfurt.

Christian Tetzlaff
Violinist Christian Tetzlaff. Photo: © Giorgia Bertazzi

Violinist Ben Beilman, who studied with Tetzlaff, said of him, "He opened up completely different avenues and ways of thinking. His biggest theme is about sound, and imagination with sound. That was fascinating."

I wanted to learn more about that imagination, where it came from, and how it guides his musical expression. With Tetzlaff coming this week to Los Angeles - where he will teach a master class at the University of Southern California on Thursday and perform with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra on Friday, Saturday and Sunday - I finally had the opportunity to speak with him.

Laurie: How did you get started with the violin?

Christian: I was six years old, and I seem to remember that I started with violin and piano at the same time. I continued both, but with the violin, things worked out quickly, with very little work. That's why I probably favored it.

Laurie: I understand you have a musical family, and that you even perform with your sister, the cellist Tanja Tetzlaff.

Christian: All of my siblings are musicians, and my parents met in a choir. They continued that tradition throughout their whole lives: they were singing in choirs, and they also had a little choir that would gather at our house for singing. Listening to music was very common, also. For me, it was never a question that one learns an instrument because two older siblings were doing that already.

Laurie: It sounds like you had a house full of music!

Christian: I don't know how they survived it. It was a very, very small place, with four children practicing and taking music lessons!

Laurie: You will be playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto this week with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and you also recorded the Beethoven recently with conductor Robin Ticciati and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. What kind of story does that piece tell for you, or make you feel compelled to tell?

Christian: I've played the Beethoven Concerto more than 350 times, so you can imagine that a certain mindset comes to me when I enter into it.

I find a few things quite evident for me about it, and then some are my fantasies. The evident thing for me is that in the first movement, there are two layers of information. One is guided by the timpani, by a relentless drumbeat; and by the outbursts of repeated notes in fortissimo that are also highly measured, and which are a form of the timpani in the beginning. This is totally contrasted by all the melodies that are singing in half-beats. They are simple melodies, without difficult harmonies -- like children's songs throughout.

So we have a dangerous world that has to do with the military, with the drums being so prominent and the trumpets often in fortissimo, hitting into the orchestra. And we also have the world of naive beauty, of the "good person," so to say. These two worlds fight in basically every measure. Even when the beautiful second theme comes, every second measure still has the timpani. So they are coexistent until the very end of the movement.

In the development section, when the whole piece collapses on itself in G minor, the timpani motive seems to totally win over, and we come to a pianissimo place where the piece stops. For me, that moment in the music feels close to death, or to giving up, at least. And then comes amazing music, marking the moment when I crawl out of this, and all of a sudden the whole orchestra comes in in D major with fortissimo. After this, one can feel that the weak part, the singing melodies, are actually stronger than one thinks. At the very end, they seem to be united when I'm for the first time allowed to play the second theme in its entirety, after the cadenza. In this moment, the world seems to have come to a higher and joyous result.

Laurie: Tell me a little about the cadenza. In your recent recording of the Beethoven, I noticed the first-movement cadenza that you played has that timpani in it.

Christian: It's actually what Beethoven wrote. Beethoven turned the piece into a piano concerto -- because it was success-less (at first) as a violin concerto. So he made a piano cadenza for all movements. When I was 15, I simply turned those (piano) cadenzas into violin cadenzas. All I can say about this cadenza is that every single harmony and every timpani beat is by Beethoven -- which could work in its favor! The other thing is that it highlights that sense of danger that pervades the whole first movement. It focuses a lot on the timpani and the military sounds, and that makes the beautiful ending that follows it even stronger. I can see this composer -- who was so smart and full of expression -- saying, "No, I will not use the second theme in the cadenza, because I want it when I come out of the cadenza and then it appears in all its glory; this is where I need it. I don't want to hear it five minutes before, in the cadenza." I can totally see why he stays away from this.

Then after the big first movement and the serene, amazing slow movement, in the last movement Beethoven seems to be saying that there's nothing wrong with dancing and drinking and being totally merry, to the point of being silly. In fact in the piano version he puts in a cadenza that's downright silly. He's playing the same notes with both hands, which can be imitated nicely on the fiddle using the same notes on different strings (octaves). He runs up and down the piano and makes jokes and trills.

The strangest movement, of course, is the slow movement; it's most unusual. Beethoven lets the same thing simply play four times in a row: first pianissimo in the strings, then in the clarinet (accompanied by the soloist), then bassoon, then the strings in forte. Only after all this do I, as a person, so to say -- appear, singing the most amazing moment. For me, repeating this march-like theme four times is like a procession. It starts very quietly -- pianissimo, con sordino (muted). For me, I envision that it starts behind stage, as in an opera, where it comes closer and closer. Then finally I emerge from my chariot, and start talking. Then in the end, the whole thing disappears again in pianissimo. So it is an opera theme for me, associated with with religious feelings, as well as sharing wisdom and tenderness with the audience.

Laurie: Is the violin soloist the hero in all of this?

Christian: There are quite a few violin concertos where you are the protagonist. In this piece, in the first movement of the violin concerto, you are not. You have very rarely a melody to play, just snippets of the melodies, and you can't really share them with the orchestra. So the violinist is a person, sometimes individual and sometimes part of all of us. It's a constant back-and-forth. In the slow movement, in the first part, the I as the soloist am only sound-of-nature kind of thing; then all of a sudden I am the person who is in charge of a secret. So it's a very different emotional situation. In the last movement, yes, then I am "the violinist," so to say.

Laurie: I noticed you have returned to the Bach Sonatas and Partitas many times, if I'm not wrong, you have recorded them three times, so what keeps you returning to them?

Christian: The Sonatas and Partitas are one of the earliest, if not the earliest huge cycles where one musical idea permeates the whole structure, like in a Bruckner Symphony only much bigger. It is the most mind-shattering and heart-breaking music, these six sonatas. The cycle goes from deep down into darkness in the D minor Partita in the Ciaccona, and then rises out the C major fugue and into the E major Partita. To go through this in a live concert -- the direct emotions and the melodies in these pieces and how they connect to the audience like almost nothing else -- that is always fascinating. And then the reason I recorded it for a third time was very simple, I was really not satisfied with the first two attempts. I'm happier with this one.

Laurie: Tell me about your Stefan-Peter Greiner violin: how did it come into your hands, and what has made you prefer it over the Strad you used to play?

Christian: I played on two different Stradivarius and one Guadagnini before I got my first Peter Greiner. When it comes to violins, I don't care whether it's an old or a new fiddle, and I'm not in the position to say that there is a general difference between old and new fiddles. There is good and bad. And in every blind test they have conducted in the last 10 years, it has come out that nobody -- no audience, no player -- if they don't know what it is, can make this distinction. The chart is always totally arbitrary between whether people prefer famous older violins and modern ones. The slight advantage in the modern fiddle is that you can pick one, pay for it and go home -- which I cannot do with an old fiddle. But if somebody were to give me a Strad or a Guarneri that sounds better than my violin, I'd be happy to play it. I have no political agenda in my choosing a modern instrument. It just needs to sound good.

Laurie: Did you commission your modern instrument, or did it already exist? I wondered if you knew this luthier personally.

Christian: No, I didn't commission it. I know him very well, he's a very good friend of mine. But he didn't make this one for me; he had it in his shop, I played it and said, "I want this," and a week later I played my first concert on it. This was in 2000, and I played two different ones of his in the years before.

Laurie: What are the characteristics about it that drew you to it?

Christian: This one is not modeled after a specific Guarneri del Gesù but after del Gesù's 1740-1742 years. Those violins seem to have properties in the lower region that are strong and rich on the G string, and still a very luminous E string. So I find I can cover a big range of sounds with it -- it can do anything. It is well-built in the sense that I can play it ppp without its breaking; and it can also be ridden really hard. This flexibility is important for me, otherwise I would have to constantly switch violins: okay I'm playing a modern piece, I'll take this fiddle, I'm playing Bach solo sonatas, I'll play another fiddle... I have too many children to occupy myself with all those issues!

Laurie: How many children do you have?

Christian: I have six children, from ages 27 to three. But I'm only partially kidding. I'm totally dedicated to the music I do, but the real life is my life. I think this informs my playing more than practicing more. I find everything that I have to tell in the music, I live it, and it's more important than a career. At home, I'm not spending time with my violin or thinking too much about things.

Laurie: What is your philosophy of practice?

Christian: Well, it's hand-to-mouth. I manage to do a half-hour, an hour a day, and that has been already for decades. In the long run it suits me well.

Laurie: You probably had a period of time where you practiced quite a lot.

Christian: Yes, until I was 25. But not in comparison -- I mean, the first time I practiced three hours I was 15, and I was mightily proud. And I know, at that time, others have been through the double-time already for many years. I always thought that that would give me some extra years to play later on.

Laurie: It's very hard physically, playing the violin.

Christian: Exactly, exactly.

Laurie: While you are in Los Angeles you will give a master class at the University of Southern California, and you teach at the Kronberg Academy, where you've taught people like Ben Beilman. What is your philosophy of teaching, what to you aim to impart?

Christian: My philosophy for students is totally different, depending on whom I'm teaching. At the Kronberg Academy and I have had students like Alina Ibragimova, Ben Beilman and William Hangen -- many really good players. For them the emphasis would be a bit more on interpretation and the role of a violin artist in our society. That means things such as: to always come to the point that you have to play for life and death, and that you have to really become one with the composer to give an important message. Also we talk about the craft of being a successful violinist; not just playing here and there but actually digging deep into your own soul to promote what is important. This would be the focus with them.

But with other students -- I simply also love Kreutzer etudes and Paganini caprices. There are so many layers to violin teaching, and I find the technical and the expression aspects are totally linked. If you only learn what is easiest and best-sounding, you will never be able to play confrontational, important, complex music. You have to have tons of technical tools -- not just the most reliable strokes and vibrati. It's fun on every level, to teach.

Laurie: It sounds like you are saying technique is very connected to expression.

Christian: If somebody has one good vibrato and one healthy bow stroke, maybe he feels very safe-- but he shouldn't even touch a violin concerto. We have to be always on the edge of expression. We have to make violin playing much more difficult to be expressive, and this is often neglected. Often the pieces are changed in a way so that they are "good to play" and so that they "sound good," but I think most composers would turn in their graves if they thought that was the sole object of their music.

Laurie: You have famously said that "beauty is the enemy of expression," maybe you could explain what that means to you.

Christian: In many pieces, there are moments of great beauty, when difficulties have been overcome, or when love suddenly appears. For these moments, we need to have a fantastic repertoire of good sounds, and a way to send them out to the audience. But in the really great compositions, there are also moments of struggle, vulnerability, tenderness, even insecurity. All these things you cannot sum up under beauty, but only under truth. For these, you often have to sound hesitant, not-on-top-of-things. The violinist who is standing in front of the orchestra on top of things is not a good advocate for all the different parts of the soul of the composer. He has to be a part of it, under it, in it, and a voice for doubt and a voice for tragedy. In these moments, when I hear people playing beautifully at desperate moments, I think, how dare you? Why do you do this?

There is so much confession in great music, from soul-to-soul. If you sit at a table with a friend and you talk about horrible or not-nice things that happened, you don't use your best voice. Your voice changes in a way that conveys your emotion. Of course, beauty, you can see it in so many ways -- I find beauty in the broken voice, in the tenderness of the pianissimo. For me, that's a certain even stronger kind of beauty. But what I am referring to in my sentence -- "beauty is the enemy of expression" -- is soap-opera beauty. Because in soap operas they are almost always "beautiful," even if the worst things have happened to them. So one can conclude that it is a lie. This soap opera does not reflect life, even if people say, "Oh, this beautiful actress and actor, I adore them..." But they are supposed to be actors, and ever more, we as violinist are supposed to be actors in the soul of the composer. If we promote our own beauty then -- we shouldn't do it.

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February 3, 2020 at 08:50 PM · Absolutely fascinating, I'm not really familiar with him, but that stops now!

February 4, 2020 at 12:02 AM · Wow, this is so great! I just saw him on Saturday in Amsterdam - it was breathtaking.

February 4, 2020 at 12:03 AM · Wow, this is so great! I just saw him on Saturday in Amsterdam - it was breathtaking.

February 4, 2020 at 02:44 PM · Incredibly interesting! (His comment about having too many children to worry about which violin he picked up was priceless!) Laurie, I hope you'll have the opportunity to hear him play the Beethoven and to bring us along vicariously.

February 4, 2020 at 11:40 PM · I plan to cover both his master class and Beethoven performance, really looking forward to both!

February 5, 2020 at 05:09 PM · Looks like Tetzlaff is also giving a master class at Colburn at 1 p.m. Thursday!

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