The Zehetmair Quartet Confirms its Pedigree at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Hindemith, Beethoven Zehetmair Quartet (Thomas Zehetmair, Kuba Jakowicz, violins; Ruth Killius, viola; Ursula Smith, cello) Wigmore Hall, London. 17.1.2012 (CC)

Mozart:                    String Quartet in G, K156
Hindemith:           String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22
Beethoven :           String Quartet in F, Op. 135

The Zehetmair Quartet has a formidable reputation (its disc of Schumann’s criminally underprogrammed quartets won a Gramophone “Record of the Year”, for example). On the present evidence, its standing is richly deserved, for the enterprisingly programmed music here was presented with a deep vein of musical understanding that was most impressive. More impressive, it could be argued, than perhaps the audience deserved: a caffuffle over seating held up the opening Mozart, with a vocal entreaty not to start yet from an audience member; later, a mobile phone broke a moment of magic.

Beginning with early Mozart brought imemdiate freshness to the proceedings. The G major Quartet was written in 1772, so dates from Mozart’s teenage output. Its first movement, a Presto, is crisp and to the point. Here, in the hands of the Zehetmair Quartet, it was joyfully playful, too. The heart of K156 is its central Adagio, music of real depth. Especially impressive here was the Zehetmair’s disembodied pianissimo. The suave Tempo di Menuetto finale was lovely, and held some interesting textural risks (Mozart plays with the limits of thin scoring) but seemed, perhaps, slightly anticlimactic.

The real attraction of the concert, for this critic at least, was a rare chance to hear Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet of 1921, a work this quartet recorded for ECM in 2006 (coupled with Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet on ECM New Series 1874 and reviewed on Musicweb International by Michael Cookson.) The work was composed as Hindemith was taking the decision to become a full-time composer (as opposed to a member of the Frankfurt Opera orchestra). Also at this period, Hindemith was beginning to favour the viola over the violin, and the foregrounding of the viola part, impeccably delivered here by Ruth Killius, was surely part of that change.

There are five movements. The counterpoint of the first (a fugato) is of decidedly melancholy bent (and here Hindemith is at his most Schoenbergian). Traces of bow shake from Thomas Zehetmair were a surprising and not particularly welcome distraction. Still, the important point is that the Zehetmair Quartet honoured the full scope of this piece, from vicious energy to dance-like sections. The sheer concentration of all four players was remarkable throughout.

Finally, Beethoven’s Op. 135, from the penultimate year of the composer’s life. Here in the first movement was a very different playfulness from that which we heard from Mozart; the swift tempo meant the music scampered intriguingly, while the second movement (Vivace) felt like it could explode into a fit of anger at any moment. If the music’s obsessiveness could have been more underlined, the concentration of the  Lento assai (a distinct two in a bar) was remarkable, as was the question and answer (“Muss es sein? Es muss sein”) of the finale’s introduction.

The sheer intelligence of the Zehetmair Quartet, from their programming to the music’s realisation, is invigorating. That the hall was packed is testament to the fact that ensembles do not need to compromise in order to attract, and please, audiences.

Colin Clarke