Wednesday 17 March 2010

Zehetmair Quartet - Mozart, Holliger, and Beethoven, 16 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.3 in G major, KV 156
Heinz Holliger – String Quartet no.2
Beethoven – String Quartet no.16 in F major, op.135

Thomas Zehetmair, Matthias Metzger (violins)
Ruth Killius (viola)
Ursula Smith (violoncello)

This really was a splendid concert from one of the world’s great string quartets. Early Mozart, when it is performed at all, tends to be condescended to, but not here. Hans Keller’s dismissal of the early quartets as ‘on the whole, … quite abominable,’ could not have been better disproved. At first, I wondered whether the tempo for the first movement of KV 156 was going to prove too fast, but then I checked, to see it marked Presto; more to the point, nothing was rushed and the music was given space to breathe. Ever stylish, and ever attentive to each other, the members of the Zehetmair Quartet permitted a welcome sense of the outdoor serenade to permeate their reading. At times, their tone could veer a little towards ‘period’ sound, but never offensively so. Likewise, the Adagio, perhaps a little quick for the marking, never sounded rushed, for which the freedom of the players’ divination of the musical melos must be held responsible. Poised between the Baroque and Beethoven, the performance encompassed both moments of extraordinary stillness and instances of rhetorical boldness, whilst structure remained clear throughout. In the closing minuet, as elsewhere, not a single note was taken for granted. Contrapuntal interplay was very much to the fore, especially in the trio.

Heinz Holliger’s 2007 second string quartet, commissioned by KölnMusik for the Zehetmairs, followed the Mozart. It is a work full of ‘effects’ – retuning of strings, harmonics, playing on the bridge, and so forth – which yet never seem effects for their own sake. What might seem on paper like too much of a conspectus of techniques fits clearly and dramatically into a single movement structure, divided into six sections. The first is akin to a French overture, inspired by frescoes of angels’ music-making. Its contrary-motion glissandi certainly give a sense of the other-worldly, but equally apparent are glassy, angular energy and complexity of texture. The work, far from incidentally is dedicated to Elliott Carter) Next comes a Moderato section with a Hölderlin inscription, ‘… wie Wolken um die Zeiten legt …’ (‘… as clouds surround the times’.) The Zehetmair Quartet ensured a sense of the fragmentary – glimpsed through or beyond clouds? – which could yet, at least retrospectively, be pieced together. They made the most of Holliger’s post-Second Viennese School lyricism, a thread running throughout the quartet, presented with characteristic intensity. A chorale emerges in the form of an ‘embellished canon’, not unlike the emergence of the Bach chorale in Berg’s Violin Concerto, a work Holliger has recorded as conductor, with Thomas Zehetmair as soloist. There was to this section an unsettling stillness, as if one were viewing a lake, but a lake from an alien world. Neo-Bartókian night music follows, leading into the fifth, heterophonic section, which also carries the Hölderlin quotation: an extraordinary lyrical outpouring, as work and performance, overlapping entries creating greater intensity still. Finally comes the ‘singbarer Rest’ (‘singable remainder’), the phrase taken from Paul Celan. Whether consciously post-Holocaust or no, I sensed an effort and achievement to grant voice to the voiceless. The twelve parts are created by double-stopping and singing from each member of the quartet: a ‘human’ alternative to electronics? This may be fanciful, but I also was put in mind of mediæval music, Notre Dame even. Finally, voices of whatever kind faded into the ether. A wonderful work and a wonderful performance!

After the interval came Beethoven: his final quartet, op.135. The players adopted a more ‘modern’ sound than for Mozart, but there was still nothing comfortably ‘Romantic’ to their approach. Yet, if throughout, every note sounded considered, the approach never seemed self-consciously moulded. A Haydnesque sense of fun characterised the opening ‘Muss es sein?’ And as with Haydn, fun does not preclude something more serious, far from it. Such is the players’ sense of structure that the whole pretty much took care of itself, allowing one to concentrate upon motivic and dramatic incident; indeed, the work’s motivic integrity was powerfully portrayed, engendering an aptly late-Beethovenian dialectical tension between totality and fragmentation. Had Hegel been a composer, or Adorno a better composer, the music might have resembled this. Concision can present ‘difficulty’, as in the op.95 quartet, but not here, so convincing was the players’ presentation. A wonderful throwaway ending to the opening Allegretto made one ask once again, must it be? Who knows? Such is the shocking modernity of the scherzo that much of the music might have been by Holliger – except that Beethoven here perhaps sounds still more ‘new’. His truly extraordinary syncopations and harmonic clashes were relished but never exaggerated. A sense of alienation and yet equally of profound humanity brought one close to the world of the Missa Solemnis. The human spirit somehow can and did still triumph. In the slow movement, I was immediately put in mind of the final movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, yet there was also something intriguingly veiled to the Zehetmairs’ presentation. And then the finale: there was no attempt to beautify, but Beethoven has his own strange beauty, and certainly did on this occasion. Stark, unvarnished, undoubtedly angry, the music is never impetuous; release, if only of a kind, will come – and the Zehetmairs ensured that it did. What sort of answer is this? Must it be? Again, who knows, but in this performance, the ambiguity of the Beethovenian oracle was now a recognition of complexity, not a signal of nonchalance. The ‘difficulty’ of Beethoven’s marking, Der schwer gefasste Entschluss, again brings one to the world of his late Mass. Should one even be here? There truly is no ‘newer’ music than late Beethoven.