On a sunny autumn afternoon, in the alpine Schloss Elmau overlooking the first powdery dustings of snow on the Wetterstein mountains, I had the great pleasure of interviewing the violinist Christian Tetzlaff, who was performing a concert in Elmau. Tetzlaff was clearly in the mood to talk: we dived directly into intense discussions of music and life.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Benedikt Zacher: We’ve just spoken about small children, with yours hopefully having their nap right now. Yesterday, my four-year old decided that he wanted to dance, so I sat at the piano and played a Schubert waltz, only for him to interrupt me straight away and say “No, Dad, don't play elegant music, play cool music!” I think that's an interesting classification – how do you categorise music?

Christian Tetzlaff: My little one always says “Party Music” as against classical. But seriously, the usual separation into “serious” and “popular” music hits its limits pretty quickly, as you can see if you take the example of a classical radio station that only broadcasts music suited for your car radio, missing out all those deep, slow movements: that's more like popular music. You hear things like “Classical music chills me out so nicely”.

For those of us who make music with body and soul, that's absurd, because we want to sharpen up the antennae of the listener rather than to depress them. Antennae that show them "Here is something that moves me deeply. But what is it that moves me so deeply and makes me cry, how has the composer touched me and brought something that was buried inside my soul to light?" As musicians we also have a cathartic duty to introduce people to existential questions and show them how to come to terms with them; it can be a joyful, but often a painful, process. In the end, that's what the composers share: coping with the struggles of life. When I'm in schools, I always ask the kids "Why do we listen to sad pieces?" – the answer comes straight back "because when you cry, you feel better". And that's an important aspect of music: the sharing of grief as a religious idea of mankind. And the zest for sharing greater joy and love.

For me, the important difference between classical and pop music is that pop tends to place an individual artist or band in the spotlight and idolises them, whereas classical music addresses each individual listener, with their different stories and broken dreams.

Classical concerts are naturally more unique than pop concerts, but is it perhaps a modern invention that we listen to concerts in large dark rooms, eyes and ears glued to a brightly lit stage? If you think back to the soirées of Schubert or Mendelssohn, music seems to have been a far more sociable pastime. Would you wish for more interaction with the audience and for smaller, more intimate settings?

It depends on the works. Brahms first tried his symphonies with reduced instrumentation, but was also happy to hear them in a big concert hall with 16 first violins later on. There are many pieces where I can barely keep still in my seat, but during a Schubert Lied, for example, I’m glad that I can be all ears, fully immersed. If you make music deeply and honestly, anything is possible. Sometimes, it even works in large halls. It depends on how concentrated you are and on how many ears are engaging with the music. As soon as you are in a large hall, the aspect of a religious experience comes into play, when many people are gathered together for a deep musical experience. The one thing that doesn't work for me, and which seems to be the case for 80% of concerts, is when the musicians feel that the only thing that matters is them, with the composition being relegated to the status of mere material. You can easily tell by whether the artists are playing what's in the score or not. Listeners who don't know the score well or can't read music, might admire it as "artistic freedom". But for most cases, it is simply laziness and showing-off; following the motto "I don’t like this part being played piano, I get more applause when I play loudly". If you trample over the minimal instructions that the composer has written in the score to protect himself and his ideas from faulty interpretation, then you might have missed the point and are probably in the wrong job.

 

Didn't Joseph Joachim himself complain to Brahms about the second movement of his Violin Concerto, because the main theme is introduced by the oboe, and the violin plays mere variations?

No, that was Sarasate. On the contrary, Joachim and Brahms struggled over every note. Brahms expressed things like "If I write a double-slur, it's still a sigh; a triple-slur is a rhythmic grouping of three." You don't often find those kinds of differences between violinists, because many of them rigorously follow the editions of famous teachers or players. Consulting the original score is as important as learning one's mother tongue. And even with an interpretation that's true to the original, there is still a big scope for artistic freedom. You have to play the wonderful main melody piano, because that's the way it's written. But I can play the melody melancholic, longing, joyful or fulfilled, which makes a big difference.

But with such requirements, might you not be asking too much of a large part of the classical audience, who are happy to identify with famous artists and admire them? Are we not running the danger that classical music will no longer be loved by ordinary people and become the preserve of a narrow cult?

You often hear these arguments, but I don't understand why. At all times, only 5% of the population engaged intensively with classical music. For me as an artist, the last thing I'm doing when I play a concert is to pursue some commercial or other strategic agenda. When I play, I am falling into a kind of trance and I live the music in the moment.

On the contrary, I believe that those of us who take the written notes seriously can make far more radical and explosive interpretation than those who put themselves into the spotlight. Naturally, I'm afraid, there are always people who will give into the cult of personality. Just as in politics, where it suddenly doesn't matter anymore whether politicians can drive things as I want or need for my life in the community, but what matters is the politicians' manner and what they look like. In music, of course, there's also a cult of stardom, but every artist who makes music with respect, heart, body and soul is able to reach the audience.

What role does historically informed performance play in the search for truth in music?

An equally common misconception about musicians like Harnoncourt or other trendsetters of historically informed practice is that they wanted to play music exactly the way people did in the past, in order to achieve historical correctness. That is not and was never the aim. Rather, the goal was the constant search for expression in music. And then, the realisation suddenly came to these original sound pioneers: with Bach, everything is allowed. And at once, the cantatas sound fragile, colourful, explosive, stark, ugly or desperate, no longer just powerful and noble as with Karl Richter. Listen to Mozart with Karl Böhm and compare it with Harnoncourt. Mozart was an opera composer, and when you think about it, it's obvious that every melody can sound different, that one can sing on the instrument. In this respect, we live in a fortunate time, when we can listen to a Haydn symphony without having to suppress a yawn.  

It is however important to imagine how music used to sound on instruments of the time: there's a huge difference between a modern Steinway grand and a fortepiano, which sounds brighter in the treble and considerably more percussive in the lower registers. Therefore, if Beethoven writes a single low note, it must sound more frightening than just beautiful. For sure, he did not write the note thinking "It's a shame that that won't sound perfect on the fortepiano, but I hope it will sound better in 200 years' time", so one has to be aware of that. But one thing is always true: it’s absurd that there’s only one right way. It has to do with the search for truth, and ignorance never makes music more emotional.

Christian Tetzlaff © Giorgia Bertazzi
Christian Tetzlaff
© Giorgia Bertazzi

We certainly live in an enriching time, when you look at the different interpretations of music. What do you think does the future of classical music hold for us?

Your question sounds like we constantly have to find new ways and new interpretations to be progressive. But changes and new interpretations are not an end in themselves. An artist should never try  to distance themselves from other interpretations. But, to give you one example of something that has changed in my own 40 years of being a musician, which was by no means taken for granted when I started: for me, rubato has become more important, more natural. In language, there are no two words which have exactly the same length. So it's highly unusual for me to play four crotchets in a bar alike. Everything that we communicate in music must be based on the content, and I want to exploit that content as far as the score permits. And all my favourite composers permit you the freedom to explore widely.

Who are your favourite composers?

They are the composers who tell a deep story. Obviously, that includes Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Schubert, Brahms, Berg. But there's also my greatest favourite Bartók, even though his worlds are sometimes fascinatingly alien. I find a kindred spirit in Jörg Widmann, when I play with him as well as in his compositions, especially his Violin Concerto. He writes an explanation for nearly every note, but he honestly doesn't need to, because I believe that I understand what he's talking about anyway.

Tell us about your favourite violin makers: you're currently playing a modern instrument, made in 1999 by Peter Greiner...

Many people think that a Stradivari is an instrument from the 18th century, but of course that's not true. The body is from that time, but the rest has been restored: the neck has been steepened, the bass bars larger, the bridge reinforced, the sound post lengthened, just as when someone refurbishes a vintage car to be able to drive at 200 km/h on the Autobahn. And in all the major scientific blindfold studies that I'm aware of which have compared modern and old violins, neither experts nor lay people could tell a difference. Also, I once played my violin to one of the most renowned violin valuers, comparing it with a famous Guarneri that happened to be there. He turned around, listened to both of them, and he said patronisingly: "They're both wonderful instruments, but that one, that has this exceptional timbre – of course, that's the Guarneri". It was the Greiner. 

 

For a moment, let's imagine the concert of your dreams. If you were playing tonight in Elmau in a piano trio with two musicians of the past, who would you choose?

Emanuel Feuermann and Bela Bartók, or perhaps Pablo Casals and Artur Rubinstein. But there are very, very many from whom I would gladly have learned much.

One final question, about your own future. As a teacher, what would you wish to bring across to your students, to become the desired chamber music partners of later generations of musicians?

Of course, that would be a beautiful thing! For me, the important thing is to get across that music-making isn't just a way to earn a living: it's always a matter of life and death. We must develop our technique and our expressivity to bring to people everything that the composer wanted to say.

 

Translated from German by David Karlin