Tetzlaff Quartet at Queen Elizabeth Hall

String Quartet in G minor, Op.20/3
String Quartet No.14 in A flat, Op.105
String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 (Voces intimae)

Tetzlaff Quartet [Christian Tetzlaff & Elisabeth Kufferath (violins), Hanna Weinmeister (viola) & Tanja Tetzlaff (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 October, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

String quartets fronted by solo violinists are hardly a new departure (witness the success of such as the Zehetmair Quartet), and – schedules of its members permitting – the Tetzlaff Quartet has been quietly building a repertoire and reputation since the mid-1990s. A pity the Queen Elizabeth Hall was barely half full, for the programme was notably well balanced in terms of its content and aesthetic, while also playing to the strengths of an ensemble clearly at home with music of the greatest contrapuntal intricacy and which places maximum emphasis on the players’ coordination.

The recital began with the third from Haydn’s Opus 20, if not ultimately the greatest then almost certainly the most fascinating of his string-quartet sets. Much of the fascination in the G minor lies in the way that its designated key is used less as a tonic to be returned to than as a focal-point from which all manner of modulations are undertaken. Hence outer movements in which the sonata and rondo formats are undercut by a restless anticipation that, in both cases, finds fulfilment by withdrawing into silence; a Minuet whose intentionally off-kilter dance-metre could hardly be danced to (something common to more such movements over the course of Haydn’s output than might be supposed), and an Adagio whose easeful progress yields any number of formal and expressive subtleties. In all respects, the Tetzlaff underlined the questing nature of Haydn’s music at the start of his most exploratory phase.

Dvořák’s final quartets are both masterpieces that have only latterly come into their own. While the G major offers up startling portents of quartet-writing to come, the A flat is a work of synthesis and integration. The Tetzlaff members ensured that the first movement’s sombre introduction (written prior to the G major work, which explains the present piece’s earlier opus number despite being essentially the last of Dvořák’s quartets) lead seamlessly into an Allegro whose expressive diversity was not at the expense of formal poise, then made the most of the scherzo’s scintillating play with its Furiant rhythm. A daringly slow tempo for the Lento was amply justified in terms of the movement’s emotional breadth, before the finale pursued its largely untroubled course on the way to a close of decisive affirmation – rhythmically as defined yet as seamless as the music demands.

Interesting how, in view of the equivocal response meted out to his symphonies in Germany, numerous German ensembles have taken up Sibelius’s ‘Voces intimae’ quartet over recent years – as though the work’s often recalcitrant manner fell naturally within the domain occupied by Reger and Schoenberg (indeed, the Tetzlaff has coupled it with the latter’s First Quartet on its latest recording). The success of this performance lay in the conviction with which the musicians brought out its unlikely yet undeniable symmetry – the first movement unfolding spaciously yet provisionally to a point from which a brief Vivace seems to reprise its motivic essentials in ‘fast-time’; a process balanced by the way that the Allegretto’s trenchant, even fractious progress is released in the finale’s ever-increasing momentum towards its fateful close. Coming between these ostensible pairs of movements, the Adagio took on a gravitas equal to that of any symphonic slow movement from the period – unfolding eloquently over paragraphs of weighted intensity to eventual repose; the ‘intimate voices’ denoted by a rapt chordal motif that punctuates its progress with effortless poise. This was a masterful account of a significant work.

A deservedly enthusiastic reception saw the ensemble return for a pertinent encore in the guise of the Intermezzo from Mendelssohn’s A minor String Quartet. Hopefully these musicians will be returning to the Southbank Centre: hopefully, too, there will be a full house to greet them.

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