Outstanding Tetzlaff Quartet performances of Schoenberg and Beethoven in Berlin

GermanyGermany Schoenberg and Beethoven: Tetzlaff Quartet (Christian Tetzlaff, Elisabeth Kufferath [violins], Hanna Weinmeister [viola], Tanja Tetzlaff [cello]). Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin, 19.1.2020. (MB)

Tetzlaff Quartett (c) Giorgiia Bertazzi

Schoenberg – String Quartet No.1, Op.7

Beethoven – String Quartet No.13 in B-flat major, Op.130, with Grosse Fuge, Op.133

What better way to attempt to restore severely battered faith in humanity than with the music of these two composers? We may deconstruct the heroism of Schoenberg and Beethoven all we like – it is, in many respects, meet and right so to do – but first and foremost, we construct and, in that construction, we remind ourselves of what humanity can and should be. That is certainly what we heard in outstanding performances from the Tetzlaff Quartet.

The first movement of Schoenberg’s First String Quartet opened as if taking its leave from Verklärte Nacht: not the lazy, ‘late Romantic’, ‘acceptable Schoenberg’ of reactionaries, but febrile, generative, surveying the twentieth century as Beethoven did the nineteenth. More ‘expressionist’ too, for want of a better word, and but a stone’s throw from the life-affirming complexities – and formal compression – of the First Chamber Symphony. There was urgency yet, just as necessary, there was space. Motivic and harmonic development less travelled less hand in hand than hurled each other, however undeniable the intricacy, into the vortex of things to come. The second group of the exposition/first movement/however one wishes to think of it – clue: one should think of it in all these respects and more – spoke with perfectly judged light depth, well-nigh immediately initiating regathering, redoubling of strength. Counterpoint of vigour and teleological force, the sheer effort of construction looked both back and forward to Beethoven. The latter’s good humour and rapt lyricism seemed reborn too in a performance which, throughout its three-quarters of an hour span, maintained tension even when, particularly when, it relaxed. This was, rightly, no mere matter of background and foreground, though it certainly included that, Schoenberg ever a superior guide to Schenker.

Becoming, then, was ever the thing: becoming that reminded us we need not look to later Schoenberg for homage to and reckoning with the great Classical trinity of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The stillness and serenity with which the third of the Quartet’s four sections opened again seemed to presage what we would hear in Beethoven’s op.130, though that would be negated and then have its negation negated soon enough. Holy ground opened up before us, suggesting Schoenberg’s own air of another planet, even the Burning Bush of Moses und Aron, yet before we knew it, we were plunged headlong into something as wondrously profane. The finale, if we may call it that and I think we may, registered almost as a homage to Haydn, proving as full of fascinating, moving contrast as all that had gone before it, all the time developing further, before reaching, fulfilled yet far from spent, its very own Heiliger Dankgesang.

Emotional fragility and sureness of line announced the Adagio ma non troppo ‘introduction’ – does that word really suffice any more? – to Beethoven’s first movement. The music, not unlike Schoenberg’s, spoke of and as something too rare, too good to last, yet which we therefore needed all the more. This movement’s concentration, contrasts, and general humanity were impossible not to hear in the light of Schoenberg – and why would one try? Moreover, whilst unquestionably a first movement ‘proper’, the performance suggested also an exposition to the quartet as a whole. Dynamic form is never so straightforward as either/or, certainly not in Beethoven. Haydn continued to sound both near and far. And what music, what wisdom, lay in the silences.

Energy, constraint, and their mutual frustration proved, in a whirlwind second movement, the stuff of melody and it of them. The third, likewise yet differently, spoke similarly of contrasts and complements equally hard-won, equally divine. It was an intellectual and spiritual tour de force, no doubt; it also sang with a plainspoken honesty that was equally Beethovenian. The players left us in no doubt that it both emerged from the dance that had preceded it and led to the fragile joy of the next. That in turn necessitated, if only in retrospect, the mysterious, untouchable, yet utterly human tones of the Cavatina. Whatever the challenge – and these musicians left us in no doubt that late Beethoven will always, must always, remain a challenge – the owl of Minerva will continue to instruct us when it spreads its wings at dusk.

Speaking of challenge, the small matter of the Grosse Fuge was yet to come. A recent tendency to speak unreflectively of late Beethoven anticipating twentieth-century modernism – it is never quite so easy as that – has rightly encountered some resistance lately. Such resistance, however, would surely have wilted in the face of so commanding, so uncompromising a performance as this. No, it is not Schoenberg; nor is it Boulez or Stockhausen. No, it is not trying to be. The spirit of exploration, however, in a struggle that threatened to have the Missa solemnis sound like a teddy bear’s tea party, could hardly have been more honestly, necessarily sounded. The struggle to write, to play, to listen was, so it seemed, everything: certainly everything one needed. From Bach to Boulez, beyond in both directions, musical history became alive, as it must in performance of that most enigmatic, most modernistic of all settings of Christendom’s central rite. For an encore, the second movement, ‘Allegretto vivo e scherzando’, of Tchaikovsky’s Third Quartet may have been unexpected. It fitted the bill well, though, having me hear this snatch of an apparently very different work in terms I should hardly have guessed would ever apply.

Mark Berry

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