LA JOLLA — As a musical institution, the recital has fallen on hard times. It is dominated by bankable, big-name performers, most of whom long ago lost interest in the repertory they routinely perform. And the remainder of the field seems to be populated by musicians whose programming aspirations outdistance their modest technical abilities.
Violinist Thomas Zehetmair, who made his North American recital debut Saturday night at Sherwood Auditorium, is a welcome exception to these trends.
In an uncommonly well-chosen program of sonatas by Mozart, Bach, Grieg and Janacek, the young Austrian musician demonstrated that his formidable technique was governed by exquisite taste and a trenchant understanding of each work's unique inner logic. In short, Zehetmair is a thinking person's virtuoso.
For those who savor pure physical prowess, his performance of J.S. Bach's Unaccompanied Sonata in C Major was an enviable tour de force. He dispensed the strenuous contrapuntal challenges of the lengthy fugue with untiring clarity, yet saved a sweet tone and intimate scale for the delicate slow movements.
His insights into Janacek's rarely played 1921 sonata gave it an electric urgency, a trait shared by his suave accompanist, Armen Guzelimian. Even though Zehetmair had rehearsed with the USC pianist a mere four hours, their instant partnership sparkled with intuitive rapport. Zehetmair was flown in from Zurich a day before his performance to replace an indisposed Rosalyn Tureck, who had been slated to give a solo keyboard recital.
While most violinists cultivate a single, all-purpose technique, which they apply without prejudice--or discrimination--to the entire repertory from Bach to Shostakovich, Zehetmair has at his command a distinct approach for each stylistic epoch.
For Bach, he employed a highly focused tone and short-bowed style, but for Grieg's Romantic idiom, he cultivated a richer, broader timbre with more prominent vibrato. For his Mozart Sonata in B-flat, K. 454, he found a sonic middle ground, allowing him to bring out the work's delicate traceries with elegant vigor.
If he displayed a shortcoming, it was some lack of body in the brilliant fortes of the Grieg. He compensated, however, with a host of dynamic contrasts that delineated the sonata's episodic structure with engaging clarity.
According to the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, who sponsored this recital, Zehetmair will return in August as part of the society's SummerFest '88 festival of chamber music.