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Secret Messages And Public Joy

New York
Zankel Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
11/08/2008 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421
Alban Berg: Lyric Suite
Jean Sibelius: String Quartet in D Minor, Opus 56, “Voces Intimae”

Tetzlaff Quartet: Christian Tetzlaff (Violin), Elisabeth Kufferath (Violin), Hanna Weinmeister (Viola), Tanja Tetzlaff (Violoncello)

The Tetzlaff Quartet (© Alvaro Yanez)

The full audience at Zankel Hall Saturday evening didn’t have the usual demographics. They were relatively young, obviously knowledgeable, and rightly enthusiastic. The reason? The Tetzlaff String Quartet is one of the world’s most interesting chamber music ensembles. Like the audience, they are fairly young, they play with a fierce commitment, and their individual voices are so clear and melodic that they can even give the atonal Lyric Suite a Dvorák-like swing and clarity.

Many years ago, I interviewed a well-known pianist who told about having to play Schoenberg in front of the composer himself. She was obviously frightened, because this wasn’t her kind of music, but the composer consoled her.

“Tell me,” he said, “do you like Rachmaninoff?” She replied in the affirmative. “Then when you play my Five Piano Pieces, pretend that you are playing Rachmaninoff, and I’m certain it will sound fine.”

I doubt if the Tetzlaff Quartet would have played Berg’s Lyric Suite in any style except Bergian, but they are so well attuned to the style, the composer, and of course the lilt of Austria, that they gave it an entirely new language. Christian Tetzlaff is one of the great Berg interpreters of our day—he is even introducing the Violin Concerto to the Hong Kong Arts Festival next year—so he could lead the other three in very dance-like piece of music.

Like that Violin Concerto, Berg had numerous secret messages, these messages to his mistress. But even ignoring the cabbalistic notes and relationships, we have a wonderfully melodic work. Kronos made a recording of it, notable for a “rediscovered” last movement for soprano, but other than that, their work was passionate, emotional and a bit daunting. Nothing, though, was daunting about the Tetzlaff Quartet. To the uninitiated the language might have been a bit unclear, but the inflections, rhythms, melodies and even the emotional outbursts and somewhat hopeless finale emotions seemed part of a gorgeous structure.

The concert began and ended with two very different D Minor works: Mozart and Sibelius.. Mozart’s K. 421 also has its secret messages, of tragedy and poetry. But none can be taken out of context, Like the Berg, it is a unitary work, and the Tetzlaff Quartet played it with underlying feeling.

The final work is something of a rarity, for good reason. While Sibelius composed some exquisite songs and stunning incidental music in his career, he is basically known as a symphonist, and this String Quartet, written just before his Fourth Symphony, sounds more like the sounds of an orchestral string section than a chamber music group at all.

But Sibelius had a reason for calling it “Intimate Voices”, for when played well, it can offer more than a few secrets about the always tormented composer. In fact, the third and final movements are highly emotional and no doubt personal. But all the trademarks of Sibelius are here, from the frequent tremolos to the erratic stops and starts, and “conversations” between the instruments, then subject of which we must peer hard to find.

The Tetzlaff Quartet have such commitment in their playing that these little duets (like the opening between violin and cello) have, yes, a real intimacy, blending in with a very symphonic opening. The second movement starts and finishes within a few seconds, and the Tetzlaff people whizzed through it, with all the trills necessary.

This writer enjoyed most the way the Tetzlaff Quartet handled the rugged dance movement before the finale. The awkward waltzes are reminiscent of old dances done even today in rural Finland, and Sibelius’s attempts at amusement (which are never very successful) were given a wry reading by this splendid group.

Harry Rolnick



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