The Tetzlaff Quartet in San Francisco

Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg: Tetzlaff Quartet, presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theater, San Francisco. 16.4.2011 (HS)

Christian Tetzlaff, already celebrated as one of the most intelligent and fiercely dedicated violin soloists today, introduced San Francisco audiences to the string quartet he leads with a stunning program of delicious early works by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Schoenberg. The music making was of the highest order in their concert, presented Saturday night by San Francisco Performances-taut, vivid and long on finesse.

Tetzlaff and his sister, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff, met their coconspirators at a music festival in Europe in 1994, when they were all just starting to get recognition. Elisa Kufferath, the other violinist, was concertmaster of the Bamberg Symphony from 1997 to 2004, and Hanna Weinmeister, the violist, has been first concertmaster of the Opera Zürich Orchestra since 1998. The quartet doesn’t play many concerts-this tour of eight U.S. cities is a bit of break for Christian from his steady solo calendar-but it doesn’t stop them from displaying a level of communication, precision and unanimity of spirit that leaves behind some much more famous quartets who play together all the time.

The canny program concentrated on less-familiar works by well known composers as they had achieved a musical maturity. True, Haydn was 40 when he wrote his Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20 No. 3, but he had just revolutionized the quartet form and was starting to play with the possibilities. Mendelssohn was only 18 when he completed his Quartet in A minor, Op. 13, but he had already written the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture. And Schoenberg was 30 years old when he penned his Quartet No. 1 in D minor. Generally written in the same hyper-Romantic style as Verklärte Nacht, which came two years earlier, this piece pushed the boundaries even further, but it would be three years before he turned to atonality.

The quartet lavished detailed, sensitive playing on all of this music. In the friendly confines of Herbst Hall, which seats just under 500, the musicians could play true pianissimos, making for lovely dynamic contrasts in the opening movement of the Haydn, which abounds in sudden changes in dynamics, confident that every note could be heard. They could articulate the metallic sound of bowing near the bridge in the Schoenberg without having to play so loud as to make it harsh. And they could make the music prance through the jaunty pizzicatos in the Mendelssohn with no fear of it failing to come through cleanly.

Individually, the suave, mellow timbre of Tanja Tetzlaff’s cello provided a solid foundation for the ensemble sound. The clarity of Weinmeister’s viola wove through the textures nicely. Kufferath’s wiry violin sound turned silky and rich when she had the lead. The leader’s presence-that of a true soloist-made for many breathtaking moments when he surfaced from the ensemble with the melody. The rest of the time, he merged with the others seamlessly.

The Haydn made a perfect hors d’oeuvre. Not one of his most often-played quartets, it abounds in the composer’s trademark wit, dispatched with deadpan humor.

They brought some welcome intensity to the Mendelssohn, with its many gestures (and even a few indirect quotes) from Beethoven. It isn’t until the third movement, with the aforementioned pizzicato playing, that this composer’s voice emerges. Especially captivating were the moments when Tetzlaff’s violin spun out the long, arching melody as the others plucked strings in a jaunty rhythm. Also striking was the warm, deft balance of the opening Adagio measures, a sort of chorale. Its return at the very end of the quartet created a heartstopping effect.

The Schoenberg, which runs nearly 45 minutes, demands tremendous concentration and intensity to maintain its momentum as the composer stretches the limits of harmony further and further. In this, these musicians never flagged, playing with rich sound and a palpable sense of momentum. Most impressive was the clarity amongst the sturm und drang.

For an encore, they dispatched the Vivace (second movement) of the Dvorak Quartet in A-flat major, with bravado.

Harvey Steiman