Facing death, a pianist recorded music of unspeakable emotions

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Facing death, a pianist recorded music of unspeakable emotions
In a family photo, the conductor Lars Vogt. Vogt, for one of his final albums made before dying from cancer, turned to chamber music by Schubert with Christian and Tanja Tetzlaff. (Anna Vogt via The New York Times)

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- There are recordings that are meant for the ages, that are intended to sound definitive. There are recordings that document a fleeting interpretation, that inspire or provoke, that accept the impossibility of a final word. And then there are the rare recordings whose circumstances defy the ordinary routines of an artist, that capture a high or a low moment in that person’s life and, matched to the right music, transcend it.

In February 2021, Lars Vogt probably should not have traveled to Bremen, Germany, to join his close friends, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his sister, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, in recording Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in E flat. Vogt, a widely beloved pianist and a conductor on the rise, arrived in pain; his doctors had asked him not to go, but to check into a hospital to await a conclusive diagnosis of the cancer that would take his life, at just 51, in September last year.

Instead, Vogt sat down at a keyboard.

“He did the most incredible things,” Christian Tetzlaff said in an interview, adding that Vogt, his colleague of 26 years, suddenly played as if he had reached a kind of fulfillment or liberation. “Even on a technical level,” he continued, “I’d never heard him in this kind of perfection, exuberance, lightness. He was everything at the same time.”

Vogt, who spoke openly about his illness, continued to perform until not long before his death; he was making plans for a U.S. tour with the Tetzlaffs this spring, on which they will now be joined by one of Vogt’s dearest students, Kiveli Dörken.

The Schubert — to which Vogt and the Tetzlaffs added an earlier trio and other works by the composer for a double album, out on the Ondine label this week — was far from the pianist’s valedictory recording. With the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, of which he was music director, he taped Mendelssohn and Mozart concertos; with tenor Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s “Schwanengesang.”

But the E flat trio — a piece in which Schubert, a year short of his own death, peers into the darkness yet finds joy — became particularly significant to Vogt. “Feels a little bit like everything, at least in my life, has developed toward this Trio in E flat major,” he wrote after hearing the recording, in a message to the Tetzlaffs that is quoted in the album’s liner notes. “If not much time remains, then it’s a worthy farewell.”

As Tanja Tetzlaff tells it, an awareness of mortality was not entirely new in Vogt’s personality or artistry, though he necessarily felt it more strongly as his cancer treatment progressed.

“It was always this strange mixture of feeling, ‘OK, there is death somewhere, and there is despair, frustration, whatever, it’s there because we’re human beings’ — and then, next moment, he would be the most silly and joyful person,” she said. “That’s what always made his playing so incredibly touching, because you see the whole range of the human tragedy, and the lightness of life.”

Judging by his recordings, Vogt was a heartfelt soloist, excelling in the Bach-Schubert-Brahms lineage, yet he was arguably at his finest as a chamber musician; even the tone he gleaned from a piano — compassionate, never domineering — seems to invite collaboration. The Schubert album is the latest in a peerless series of releases with the Tetzlaffs that bears witness to a relationship not just between three artists of stature, but among intimates with a common, fearless commitment to expression.

“It’s something that’s a bit hard to understand totally from the outside; there was a very strong symbiosis,” Reijo Kiilunen, the founder and managing director of Ondine, said of the trio’s recording sessions, in which they appeared to speak “a special language” with one another. “You simply hear it in their playing.”

Before the Schubert, Vogt and the Tetzlaffs had essayed the three Brahms trios, as well as two by Dvorak; with Christian Tetzlaff alone, there were accounts of sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. There is never the feeling, in any of those interpretations, that the instrumentalists are competing for the limelight or trying to impress anyone, least of all the listener; they are sharing the music with one another.

One of those recordings has become especially poignant since it was made in 2015: a searing reading of Brahms’ Violin Sonata in G, which was also the last piece that Vogt and Christian Tetzlaff played together, as nurses gathered to hear them perform a week or so before the pianist’s death.

There is one passage, in the first movement, that movingly illustrates their partnership. It seems simple enough — the violin strums, like a guitar, as the piano adopts the searching main theme — and most duos play it simply, as a basic question of foreground and background. Yet Vogt’s tone is soft, withdrawn, as if he does not want the attention to fall entirely on himself, but would rather draw the ear to the support that Christian Tetzlaff is offering, the essential accompaniment to his mournful song. There is no ego.

“In Lars’ words, which I think we all share,” Christian Tetzlaff said, “the incredible difference between Schubert and Brahms is that Schubert shows you the absurdity, the horror and the beauty of everything, and Brahms actually takes you by your hand, and tries to give solace.” With Brahms, he added, “you have somebody at your side who is very much like you, and suffering like you. Whereas you are next to Schubert, and say, ‘Who is this giant?’”

For the Tetzlaffs, Schubert’s E flat trio represents Vogt’s emotional landscape, as well as the strength he showed in the face of his illness. Finished in November 1827, the piece dwells on Beethoven’s death earlier that year: It is in the same key as Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, and it likewise centers on a funeral march, in C minor, whose shadow is cast off only in a finale that takes consolation, of a sort, in compositional virtuosity, delighting as it layers themes on top of one another.

“This is like a psychodrama with Lars dealing with the situation,” Christian Tetzlaff said. “He would still have the loudest laughter and the wildest demeanor, engaging with us. But this is also what Schubert is doing in that slow movement: dealing with pain in a way that is not hiding, and not getting smaller, but getting bigger.”

The funeral march, with moments of dignified hope that are interrupted by outbursts of extreme turmoil, is clearly a reckoning with the abyss, so much so that Schubert demands the impossible from the people playing it, much as grief asks of its sufferers. There is one point where the string lines are marked triple forte, yet crescendo from there, accents spiking the way. It’s unplayable writing, for unspeakable emotions.

“He says, ‘Deal with it; say something,’” Christian Tetzlaff explained of Schubert in those moments. “But how?”

For Vogt, music remained, to the end, a means of saying something. The Tetzlaffs said that he timed his chemotherapy treatments to fit his concert and recording schedule, and that playing helped keep him going.

“It reminds me of a Ukrainian woman I know,” Tanja Tetzlaff said. “She said, in Ukraine — because from one side, from the other side, it was always conquered by different people — there is a saying: When things get bad, we start laughing, and when things get unbearably bad, we make music; we sing.”

Making music, “you are away, somehow, from real tragedies, but you can canalize everything that you are feeling and suffering from into something that becomes a moment,” she continued. “It’s so incredibly important that we have this. I mean, what a miracle.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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