An Interview with Christian Tetzlaff
VAN: Two weeks ago, I heard you play Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 at the Berlin Philharmonic with the Staatskapelle Berlin and David Afkham, substituting for Patricia Kopatchinskaja. At practically the same time, you were touring with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Three days after the tour ended, you played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Frankfurt, then in Amsterdam, and after that you came back to Berlin to play Bartók again. How do you decide whether to accept an offer to substitute on short notice?
Christian Tetzlaff: A major part of whether I accept that kind of offer is the location, and these concerts were here in Berlin, where I live. I try to take the needs of my family into account—I have two young children, and I’m expecting a third this spring—so have to think twice if substituting involves a travel day. The problem is, right now I’m having so much fun playing everything…
I heard your Bartók with a friend who doesn’t consider herself a passionate classical music fan, but does know a fair amount about pieces and soloists. She told me that she had rarely heard playing as direct and immediate as yours. And then she told me how weird it was that she had never heard of you.
Sure, that’s pretty common.
Compared to other violinists, your career has been unusual. On the one hand, you’ve earned a reputation as an excellent performer, other musicians admire you, you play with the major orchestras and have plenty of concerts; on the other hand, you’re barely present marketing-wise, your playing isn’t “hyped.” Call it the Tetzlaff Exception.
Yes, it is kind of a funny spot to be in. I can play whatever I want with the best orchestras, and I can record whatever I want. And I know that, in concert, I always connect with the audience—especially people who don’t necessarily know that much about classical music. But I don’t do Facebook, I don’t do anything online, and I don’t promote myself. You know, there are a lot of ways to get your name out there. Maybe you started playing concerts when you were three years old and because of that people remember your name forever; maybe you wear particularly beautiful clothes; or whatever the other factors are. At some point, your name takes on a life of its own, and it’s not necessarily related to how well you play.
Does that ever bother you?
It definitely doesn’t bother me that people don’t recognize me walking down the street. What does bother me sometimes is when I come up with an idea for an unusual project that I want to do, and presenters start having doubts. They think, Oh, should I do that with Tetzlaff? If I get Joe Schmoe to do something else, then I can be sure the hall will be packed.
So, sometimes I think I should do a little more marketing. On YouTube there are hardly any decent videos of me playing. But I think that if people go to a concert without feeling like everyone expects them to love it, and they do experience something beautiful without necessarily knowing why—that makes me think I’m on the right path.
Are there pieces you wish you could play more often?
There are some pieces in the chamber repertoire that raise all kinds of red flags for presenters, especially in the U.S. and, funnily enough, in England. But usually that has nothing to do with the quality of the music, it’s more about the marketing potential or lack thereof. That’s true of a few violin concertos, too.
Which concertos are you thinking of?
If they’re played well, the major 20th century works can be huge hits with audiences. Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 is a good example. Audiences love it. But some presenters say that people don’t pay for Bartók. They’re right in the short term and wrong in the long term. If they get the right people to play these works, they’ll give themselves the luxury of new repertoire that they can continue programming in the long term.
You’re turning 50 soon. Would you like to start revisiting things from your musical past?
Actually, I’d be happy if things stay the way they are now for a while.
Gidon Kremer recently wrote a long essay on Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. If you had to write an article or deliver a lecture on a violin concerto, which one would you choose?
The pieces that you play most often are usually the pieces that you connect to on the most intimate, personal level. Brahms’ Violin Concerto is my favorite one to play right now. It’s deep, multifaceted and has an extremely satisfying physicality. Even just the first movement contains emotion from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair. Playing Brahms, I feel like I understand what he’s telling me, in every phrase and every note. In Schubert and Schumann, I feel the music physically too, but it’s somehow less hopeful, less poised, than Brahms’.
But the piece I play the most by far is Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. I’ve played it over 300 times. I can draw on metaphors and poetic language for it that I don’t quite have for any other piece. And I could definitely do a critique of the way it’s usually interpreted.
Could you give a specific example?
The repeated notes of the first angry outburst in Bb Major are usually interpreted in a certain way. They’re written fortissimo, which suggests that they should be played with great aggression. But you wouldn’t know it—in the 1950s and 1960s the Concerto became an untouchable masterpiece, and so now everybody plays it slowly, with a pretty tone.
In an orchestra, the musicians have usually been playing together for a long time, and they develop a sound and a way of interpreting music; then the conductor comes along with his or her own reading of the piece. Isn’t it difficult to get your own interpretation of a work across when you’re the guest soloist with an ensemble?
I’ve learned a lot about what terminology to use when I’m talking with an orchestra. With Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, I might say that a phrase needs to sound like something you’ve lost but can still remember. The musicians pick up on what I’m trying to say very quickly. I’ve been doing this a long time, so orchestras know me, and I think we’re past the point where they ask themselves, Who is this guy, anyway? I make music the way I feel it, and that’s the way I relate to the orchestra too. But that only works with deeply emotional language. It’s fun for me. And I think it’s fun for the orchestra as well.
When you’re working on an interpretation of a piece, where do you draw the line between the intentions of the composer and the personality of Christian Tetzlaff?
Good question. Personally, I always try to get as close as I can to the guy behind the music. Composers didn’t have much space to write things down—enough room for a few dots here and there and that’s pretty much it. But they had these gigantic architectures in their heads. For me, the first rule is: everything that’s written in the score must have meaning. In my interpretations, I don’t contradict a single thing in the score. I treat every detail as being on the same level as the others, and give equal weight to all of them. I become a detective, and I use every scrap of evidence available to me to get to the bottom of the case: the state of the composer’s soul at the moment of composition. After all, it’s the composers who change the world, who show us the soul in a new light. Not the interpreters. Interpreters are lucky that they’re allowed to come along for the ride.
I do think there’s an excellent opportunity in this work for me to push myself to explore the dark places inside me. We probably all have those places, but we can’t just say, I’m going to explore the darkest parts of myself today! That’s the challenge that composers set for us. Their mission is to get people to explore the darkest parts of themselves, which they sometimes need to do in order to free themselves from things. People seek the experience of sitting in a concert, crying, and realizing that we’re all in the same boat, the composer, the people sitting next to them.
The performance needs to be good for this to happen, though. The performance convinces us that we’re part of a community of souls. Our music has this absolute function that’s far more significant than its entertainment value. There’s nothing superfluous in evolution, right [laughs]?
When you’re doing detective work, do you only look for clues in the composition itself, or do you look elsewhere too?
You know, there’s a fascinating, intimate exchange of letters on notation between Brahms and Joseph Joachim. In one letter, Brahms wrote, “For me, two slurred notes remain a sigh.” The “remain” is so beautiful: he’s distancing himself from the Wagnerian style of singing, and relating his work to the music of Heinrich Schütz, Bach, and Mozart.
Two slurred notes remain a sigh. That means the music speaks. But this style of interpretation was eliminated, brutally, from the gene pool of violin playing. Today’s sostenuto playing is incapable of communicating the story that the piece is trying to tell. That’s where the detective work comes in. There’s another great exchange of letters between Ferdinand David and Mendelssohn on his Violin Concerto. Mendelssohn wrote three letters describing how to play the cadenza, and no one cares! I’m old enough to be able to ask, What are these idiots doing? I believe—vehemently!—that the Concerto should be played the way Mendelssohn described it. So on the recording that I made of it, that’s what I did. And I got a review from a critic who said that he wasn’t sure why I did this or that. He didn’t look through the score—he just listened to his six favorite recordings before he listened to mine.
Sometimes, the closer you look, the more radical the music becomes. Real interpretational freedom isn’t being able to say that you’ll play forte when the composer wrote piano. It’s being able to phrase an ending that sounds questioning a little differently so that there’s a tad more hope at the end. You can say a million different things in the same dynamic. I never feel like my freedom is restricted just because I play what’s written in the score.
That position puts you at odds with most marketing strategies, where more attention is paid to the performer than to the music.
I’ll go one step further. It follows logically that the people who put themselves above the composition tend to be particularly successful. Which means that the worse the interpretation is, the better it fits in with the marketing strategy.
I think that long term this is a mistake, though. The only way to get enthusiastic audiences is to have them open themselves up to the music.
Yes. I think the only way to get people to connect to the music is to give them the opposite, tell them they can have the chance to commune with the composer one on one. They have the chance to immerse themselves in deep emotions like vulnerability, sadness and joy. What’s being done is selling music by drumming up admiration for the performers, which doesn’t give the audience anything real.
Is it easy for you to ignore the marketing when you’re traveling and performing, or does it get to you sometimes?
I honestly couldn’t care less.
When was the last time you were on Facebook?
I’ve never been on Facebook.
But you have a Facebook page.
Sure, but I didn’t make it. Two months ago, the people at my record label said that they needed a place to post links to my new recordings. So my son said he’d do it for me. I’ve never seen it and I’ve never visited it. It’s a little embarrassing, but I’m just not that interested in it.
Your Facebook page has 229 likes. Anne-Sophie Mutter’s has 164,721.
Since I’ve never seen it, I don’t know how many people have liked it. But there’s nothing there anyway, so why should people like it?
Mutter recently recorded a “Club Album.” She played a few all-time favorites at a club in Berlin. There were countless Facebook posts. In one, she talked to her fans about her outfit, what shoes go with her dress, stuff like that. Is this the future of classical music?
Hmm. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think it’s more like the downfall of classical music. Our strength is that we’re the polar opposite of pop culture. Pop culture has a wonderful and well-defined place: a pop concert brings a mass of people together, it’s thrilling to watch what’s happening onstage. What we have is a personal conversation with someone, maybe from another time, who has something very important to say. You can’t compare the two. If we try to make our music popular, then we lose the ability to say that two bars are the key to the piece, that they’re important and you need to concentrate on them. You can’t have it both ways.
Do you feel like we’re losing something essential?
Not at all, I’m actually very optimistic. There are tons of fantastic young conductors out there with a feeling for nuance and no interest in pretending to be dictators. There are plenty of concert venues doing well, and excellent chamber music groups. When you look at the “second tier,” everything’s going great. The idea that we need to make our music popular is superfluous. OK, it does seem like it’s working pretty well for some artists and labels, at least financially. But besides that, it’s a shame when people behave as if a certain attitude is more important than the music. The audience stops being able to understand what the music has to say. If you get caught up on how you look, you won’t be able to dive into the music. You won’t be in a position to convince anyone to treat the music with the sensitivity it needs.
Do you ever dream about music?
It’s funny, but I often dream about composers. Since I was a little kid they’ve been my heroes—first dinosaurs, then composers. I think it’s connected to the idea of the composer as cowboy, as someone who goes all alone to a place where no one has gone before. I used to get chills reading about Schubert and Schumann’s lives as a child. They felt a profound existential longing; a deep need to, as introverts, express themselves and have people perceive the essence of their souls. That’s a fantastic quality in a person. Despite the often tragic circumstances of composer’s lives, I always imagined they were happy.
Are there pieces or composers that don’t inspire you to do detective work?
Yes, there are some people that I really can’t connect with. For example, post-“Rite of Spring” Stravinsky. He wrote 20, 30 pieces after it, and I feel like all he cared about was that they sounded fashionably neoclassical. It’s just one interesting-sounding trick after another. I can’t help wondering if I’m supposed to be impressed with all the tricks he knows. Where’s the mission? I feel the same about Prokofiev. So I don’t play either of them. Otherwise, I’ve come to treasure all the composers whose pieces I’ve worked on over the years.
Let’s say that in your philosophy of interpretation, you’re like a medium who uses the music to get closer to the soul of the composer and your own inner being. Assuming that’s true, how do you get back out of this medium-like state? In Shamanism, the medium is usually given time to recover after the ritual. How do you feel when you’ve, say, just played Berg’s Violin Concerto? What happens next?
The first thing is that I’ll have a couple beers. And then I usually move on pretty quickly. The concert itself is an incredibly intense moment, but then my friends show up, and the next morning I’m with my family and have to take my son to kindergarden. They’re two completely separate lives. I work hard to keep my life as a violinist separate from my family life. If you came by my place, you wouldn’t see any evidence of it—I don’t put up concert posters and I hardly ever practice at home, maybe half an hour or an hour here and there. The moment of the concert is like an explosion, and then it’s over.
That is something that always seems to come up when people talk or write about you. You once said you only practice an hour a day. Why do people take so much interest in that statement?
I mention it when I’m asked, because it’s clearly a very important topic for young people. Thousands of kids get completed burned out and don’t become musicians because they couldn’t survive it. A kid who practices seven hours a day should be referred to UNICEF in my opinion. It’s child labor. It might seem nicer than working in a factory, but it’s an incredible level of emotional stress for something that really should represent freedom and expanding horizons.
Any neurologist can tell you that you learn more by practicing for an hour and then taking a break than by forcing yourself to keep playing. It’s brutal, and it makes you develop a kind of latent hatred for the violin. So I mention it because I want children to realize that I’m a soloist, but I didn’t start practicing for three hours a day until I was 15. If you start practicing three or four hours a day when you’re 15 or 16, you can learn a lot. And then you can keep going, and keep learning, for the next 30 or 40 years. But it’s perverse to say that first you have to sacrifice everything and then it might be worth it. Brahms doesn’t care if the violinist is 10 or 40. Except that if a 40-year-old is playing, then the chance is much higher that he has actually experienced what he’s trying to communicate.
I can understand why people are amazed by a 10-year-old juggler at the circus. But in music, it’s not about ability. It’s about telling a story, communicating the content of the piece. When a kid is playing, you can’t really tell if he’s just imitating someone else well, or if he really is passionate about getting the message of the music across.
Do you play with a particular listener in mind?
Well, somehow I try to play for people in need, which is all of us, in a way. Yesterday, I was sitting in the audience for Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 and I died a thousand deaths with him, from fear, beauty, and the pride that someone was able to express those emotions, to fight and affirm his humanity. As a listener, I know how it feels: there are moments when the hall is charged with such emotional energy that it feels like it must explode. ¶