As I sat in Stanford University’s spacious yet intimate Bing Concert Hall last night, listening to Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt play a series of violin sonatas together, I found myself searching for the source of the violinist’s mysterious allure. It is not just that he is technically brilliant, or musically knowledgeable, or capable of great feats of memory; all these are true enough, but they are also true of other great violinists. Tetzlaff has something else besides. He is, I decided last night, the Baryshnikov of violinists. You cannot take your eyes off him when he is performing, and that aspect of the performance—his physical embodiment of the music—is essential to the pleasure he gives us.
I have said, in regard to other excellent violinists, that the instrument seems an extension of themselves. With Tetzlaff, I would go even further and say that the music actually seems to be emanating from his own body. It is as if he is singing to us: sometimes in the dulcet tones of Joyce Di Donato (as he did, for instance, in passages from last night’s Mozart sonata in F Major or Schubert’s Rondo in B Minor), sometimes in the hoarse growl of Bob Dylan (as in the Bartok Violin Sonata No. 2), and sometimes in a lullaby mode (which characterized, for example, the Janacek Ballade he played as an encore). But in any case, whether sweet or harsh, soft or loud, whispering or keening or swelling with sound, Tetzlaff’s “voice” is ever-present. That is why, when he plays the violin, the instrument seems to be speaking to us—not in words, exactly, but in ways that are as dramatic and intense as a playwright’s or a poet’s words. The music, in Tetzlaff’s hands, has a seemingly visceral desire to communicate with us, to get across to us.
I attribute this in part to how he moves his body when he plays—and here, too, is why Baryshnikov came to mind. Just as the great dancer cannot move a chair or lower his head without evoking the idea of dance, Tetzlaff does not make a single gesture that is unrelated to the music. And yet he is moving all the time: lifting himself up on his toes at the pinnacles of excitement, tilting his head to listen to the quieter notes, shifting from one leg to another to match the rhythms, even stamping his foot when the music’s force compels him to. These are not show-offy performance gestures; I doubt they are even conscious. But because they mark essential changes in the music itself—minute distinctions of rhythmic pattern, repetition of phrases, volume level, transitions, and so on—Tetzlaff’s incessant motions are a crucial key to what is happening in the score.
That is why we can’t take our eyes off him, and that is why the music seems to be coming from his body itself: because that very body is in fact telling us how to listen, guiding us through intricate passages that might otherwise be obscure to us, and allowing us, in a kind of faint imitation, to feel the music coursing through our own bodies. As a violinist, Tetzlaff is superb. But it is as a transmitter of the music itself, a veritable communicator of the music’s essence, that he truly excels.