Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances (SFP) presented the San Francisco debut of the Tetzlaff Trio. The group is named for violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his cellist sister Tanja, performing with pianist Lars Vogt. (The two Tetzlaffs also play in the Tetzlaff Quartet, whose other members are violinist Elizabeth Kufferath and violist Hanna Weinmeister and which made its San Francisco debut, also under SFP auspices, in April of 2011. Last night’s program drew entirely upon the nineteenth century with trios by Robert Schumann and Antonín Dvořák in the first half and one by Johannes Brahms in the second.
This repertoire was traditional but also excellent for getting to know a new ensemble. In many ways the entire nineteenth century was a golden age for the piano trio. The period is flanked by the twin “pillars” of Ludwig van Beethoven at one end and Brahms at the other, with both Schumann and Dvořák as significant contributors (each with his own personal connection to Brahms).
However, if the content was traditional, last night was definitely a sit-up-and-take-notice evening. The chemistry among the three performers was charged with an energy casting new flashes of insight into even the most familiar music. Most noticeable was the group’s command of soft dynamics, readily appreciated due to the renovated acoustics in Herbst. Both Tetzlaffs have mastered the talent of bringing intense expression to the softest dynamic levels, and Vogt always knew how to match the dynamic contours of their playing. Indeed, he is one of those pianists who thoroughly avoids any thoughts of beating the other two players into submission, even when it seems as if the score allows him to get away with it.
Where Schumann’s Opus 80 trio in F major was concerned, this involved keeping a firm hand on the work of a composer known for his bipolar extremes. By confining the swing of the pendulum between these two extremes, the trio allowed the listener to pay more attention to the music itself, in preference to the volatile personality of the composer. Thus, one could appreciate how much Schumann had to say in this trio (including a quotation from one of his earlier songs. “Intermezzo” from the Opus 39 Liederkreis); but there was also a certain quality of foreboding in that confined dynamic range, leaving the listener wondering what would happen next and when it would occur. One might say that the Tetzlaff Trio added a layer of expression to Schumann’s Opus 80 by eschewing the obvious and weaving, instead, a narrative of subtle suspense.
Within that context the Dvořák selection, the Opus 90 (“Dumky”) in E minor, burst forth like a flash of bright light. This is one of the more peculiar contributions to the nineteenth-century literature, since it involves six different approaches to a single folk form, one based on the alternation of sobering introspection with wild abandon. (Did someone say “bipolar” again?) Tetzlaff’s vigorous opening gesture of this trio made it clear that the subtleties of the Schumann trio were now a thing of the past; and none of the players were shy in giving full-out expression a folk style whose qualities included a clearly-honed edge of vulgarity. If there was a certain consistency in the formal structure, the Tetzlaff Trio definitely knew how to keep attention riveted along a roller coaster ride through a diversity of rhetorical stances.
The Brahms selection, the Opus 8 trio in B major, offered, in turn, a take on nineteenth-century chamber music at its most refined. Well it should be. Brahms originally composed it at the age of twenty in 1853 at a time when he was almost literally bursting with ideas. Forty years later he looked back on the score and realized it needed serious polishing. Thus, while the opus number is low, the refinement is due to a far more mature Brahms, now confident enough to appreciate the less-is-more principle and no longer feeling an obligation to say everything at once.
The Tetzlaff approach involved letting this revised version unfold on its own accord, even including the repeat of the first-movement exposition. If Brahms had originally been more than a little vigorous in his approach to the keyboard part for this trio, the revision is much more a conversation among equals. Indeed, if any instrument is given preference, it can be found in many of the highly lyrical lines given to the cello. However, the Tetzlaff cellist never tried to crowd the spotlight, content instead to let her lines weave their way through the counterpoint provided by both piano and violin. For many this was probably Brahms at his most familiar, but the interpretation was charged by an entirely new perspective on personalized expression.
The encore selection of the evening was more Dvořák, the scherzo movement from his Opus 65 trio in F minor. Once again Dvořák provided the jolt of more assertive dynamics, colored once again by his preference for the rhetoric of folk forms. There was no mistaking the intensity of the energy behind the Tetzlaff execution. The ensemble may have had a busy night, but there was still both time and motivation to set off a few fireworks.