Spivey Hall is surely one of the more unlikely classical music venues anywhere. After navigating a vast forest of strip malls and fast-food chains through the southern Atlanta suburb of Morrow, you enter the wooded campus of Clayton State University and its small, elaborately decorated concert hall, with its extraordinary acoustics. Year after year, the pilgrimage here includes some of the best musical talent in the world.
On Sunday afternoon at Spivey Hall, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and pianist Lars Vogt, both German, kicked off an American tour that will visit seven cities, including a stop at Alice Tully Hall at New York’s Lincoln Center. Almost all will hear the same program that debuted here. As soloists and chamber artists, Tetzlaff and Vogt are on any international short list of top classical musicians, playing regularly with major orchestras, and they have performed and recorded together as a duo as well.
First up was Brahms’ A Major Sonata (No. 2), a short masterpiece that alternates between gentle restrained lyricism and powerful intensity. Tetzlaff has a magician’s ability to play lightly yet with meaning, as required in the sweeter passages here. It was obvious why these two musicians work together: rarely is a musical conversation so perfectly matched and flawlessly executed as in this piece.
Tetzlaff seems to have undergone something of a makeover. Less than a decade ago, he appeared rather stodgy and severe. On this occasion, he sported a fashionably cut black suit set off by a black shirt. His glasses have disappeared, and he’s found a new hair stylist. He moved on stage with more energy, bending his knees and stamping his foot from time to time. Perhaps this is an incidental development. Or perhaps the demands of an intensely competitive marketplace have forced him to concentrate a bit on the visual side of things. But Tetzlaff remains a musician’s musician. Although he clearly has deep reserves of virtuosity, his playing is not about display or superficiality of any sort. Everything is about the music. Now in his early 40s, he has accumulated something of a cult following and a formidable discography.
Vogt’s career bears a striking similarity to Tetzlaff’s. He is highly regarded without having become a household name — a hallmark of Spivey programming — and his playing is honest but passionate.
With the Brahms still echoing in our heads, we were jarred into the spiky world of Béla Bartók, with a performance of his big, muscular Sonata No. 1 in C-sharp minor. It is a wild ride, full of dissonance and violence. The technical demands on both musicians were such that you could see the tension in their faces and bodies as they worked away. Fans of “Emilie,” Spivey’s famous Steinway piano, might have worried whether she would survive intact, so severe were Vogt’s attacks. (A new Steinway will arrive this winter, though Emilie is expected to remain on campus along with her less revered mate, Walter.)
Bartók’s sonata is a tough one for the audience as well. In capable hands such as these, it is quite a visceral experience. Unlike most violin sonatas, there is not much of a dialogue between the piano and violin. They seem to be on different tracks, rarely sharing the same material, yet together creating a spellbinding expressionistic language. The coordination only adds to the virtuosity required for this one. Yet, as with this entire concert, one could have made a commercial-quality recording from this performance. It was that precise and powerful.
An intermission seemed essential after a ride like that, and somehow the proper ladies offering free soft drinks brought to mind an essay by H.L. Mencken, where he described a pilgrimage to hear Bach in a rural setting during Prohibition. “Johann Sebastian cannot be digested without the aid of its natural solvent,” he explained, which led to a frantic and ultimately successful search.
Returning to our seats without benefit of “solvent,” we settled in for the glorious A Major Violin Sonata of César Franck. It is a ruminative work, with themes and motifs that resemble one another, developing and transforming throughout the piece, from one movement to the next. Parts of the work are soft and introspective, especially for the violin, and Tetzlaff was daringly quiet in these passages. This might not be prudent in most concert halls, but in Spivey’s environment this only enhanced their delicacy and the contrast with the more tumultuous material that quickly followed.
In the great final movement of the Franck, there is a canon where the piano leads and the violin follows. Here again, the requirements for coordination are severe. And here again was a demonstration of playing together at the highest level, not only in terms of timing, but in the level of energy and intensity of the playing.
For an encore, we got the Allegro movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Op. 100 Sonatina, a charming piece that contains themes inspired by American folk song, but which also reflects the composer’s nostalgia for his Czech homeland.
Aside from the Central European flavors, the sonatas on this program have little in common; they seem to have been chosen specifically because of the contrasts. But this was the kind of concert that lingers in the memory and becomes a sort of benchmark. What mattered was the integrity and quality of the playing. It was simply a magical afternoon.