Zehetmair Quartet – Holliger Premiere

String Quartet in E flat, D87
String Quartet No.2 [UK premiere]
String Quartet in A, Op.41/3

Zehetmair Quartet [Thomas Zehetmair & Robert Olisa Nzekwu (violins), Ruth Killius (viola) & Ursula Smith (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 13 March, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Zehetmair Quartet. ©Keith PattisonAnyone who has followed the Zehetmair Quartet may have been surprised to see the ensemble sitting down to play rather than standing (save for the cellist!), as has been its custom over recent years. In other respects, however, little has changed – not least the absence of music and music-stands. Except, that is, in the new work by Heinz Holliger.

In his typically laconic programme note, the composer speaks of having avoided the medium since his apparently “much criticized’ first attempt of 34 years ago. If that piece found Holliger at his most intense and uncompromising, its successor affirms that he has neither lost faith in the genre nor stood still as regards its potential.

Lasting for around 22 minutes, the new piece falls into six continuous sections: so an opening of violently pulsating unisons gives way to a fractured ‘intermezzo’ which in turn leads into a sustained yet audibly fraught Adagio; followed by a ‘perpetuum mobile’ whose nervously undulating textures make possible the dislocated energy of a ‘Heterophonies’ section, before a ’12-part epilogue in 3 parts’ where the muted vocalise of the four players is inextricably combined with multi-stopped harmonies from their instruments.

No-one hearing his new quartet would doubt that Holliger remains an artist for whom composition is far from being an emotional palliative or a ‘quick fix’. Yet this is a work very much of and for the present – one that demands close listening but rewards such attention through its sheer variety of timbre and texture; and thus the expressive ends that result from its technical means. Given with fierce commitment by the Zehetmair Quartet (just two weeks after the first performance in Cologne), it may well prove less controversial than did its predecessor and certainly ought to find exponents aplenty.

Framing such a piece with ‘standards’ from the repertoire is not always a wise strategy, but this programme worked (as a commendably quiet audience response seemed to confirm!).

Despite its early Deutsch number, Schubert’s E flat Quartet is the last of those from his intensive teenage involvement with the medium during 1810-13; while the A major is the last of the three that Schumann composed during the summer of 1842, never again to return to the hallowed medium. The two works have numerous aspects in common, such as were underlined (though rarely intently) by these performances.

Thus the leisurely unfolding of each first movement – emphasised in the Schumann by the appendage of a wistful introduction, and the intensity of Adagios (placed third in both instances) whose emotional charge is heightened by their relative brevity. If the additional maturity of Schumann tells in both instances, as well as in the piquantly contrasted set of Variations that comprises the scherzo as opposed to the over-impetuous vigour of that by Schubert, then it is the latter’s finale – as judicious in its scoring as it is ingenious in design and focussed in momentum – that outfaces the over-extended and rhythmically repetitive movement which closes the Schumann.

Not that either of these works left other than a favourable impression when played with the precision and spontaneity evinced by the Zehetmair Quartet. That it will never be a ‘full time’ ensemble means that future performances and recordings – not least of Holliger’s Second Quartet – are the more keenly awaited.

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