Is there, I wonder, a greater string quartet than Schubert’s D.887, Beethoven’s notwithstanding? Certainly it is one of the most profound, moving and indeed disturbing works in that genre, rivalled only by the same composer’s string quintet and characterised by an eternal paradox in its typically Schubertian endless melodic stream and its equally typical sense of impending death, doom and destruction. The finale must emerge as a Dance of Death, a startlingly brutal musical depiction of dissolution almost two hundred years before Stravinsky utilised that trope in “The Rite of Spring”, a brave and desperate defiance of the inevitable masked by enforced jollity - and theRead more Tetzlaff Quartet really nail the mood.
Their playing is swift and invariably tightly focused, never “prettified”, sometimes raw, with sparing use of vibrato, and technically flawless execution of the frequent tremolos. The recorded sound is very detailed and more intimate than, say, the Alban Berg or Allegri Quartets; their broader acoustics match their grander, more overt manner, but where the Tetztlaff really excels is in its scrupulous and invariably unanimous application of dynamics, which greatly enhances the intensity of its playing. That attention to nuance is reinforced by their observation in the booklet notes regarding how the dynamic markings go “from triple piano with diminuendo to triple forte with crescendo”. Those notes provide little factual information on the music itself, being a transcription of a conversation about its emotional hinterland and impact of this constantly questioning music. Mahler’s wry aphorism comes to mind: “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother to say it in music” – although perhaps a review should be wary of smugly borrowing his bon mot given that the same principle could apply to reviewing.
The first movement is chilling and gripping, its grotesqueries fully realised. The Andante contains some of the most beautiful and unsettling music ever written, exhibiting wonderful control of pianissimi and concluding in almost serene and consolatory mode. The Scherzo is featherlight and delicate in the Mendelssohnian manner, the waltz-time Trio ideally elegant.
If Schubert’s quartet represents some kind of apex in the form then there is an evident logic in including in the programme here a work which was seminal in its inception and establishment. However, there is also the programmatic rationale of establishing a thematic link between these two quartets. If Goethe’s dictum is correct, that the string quartet is “a conversation between four intelligent people”, then in the case of these two works all the participants are to some degree disordered, yet we undoubtedly hear four equal voices, each claiming conversational ascendancy in turn, such is the virtuosity and equilibrium of the Tetzlaffs’ playing. Haydn’s work is disturbing in a manner similar to that of Schubert’s, in that the music evinces a frequent and shocking undercurrent of dissatisfaction and even anger, although it hardly achieves the same scorched emotiveness as Schubert’s masterwork. This is wild, erratic and fragmented music by early Classical period standards; even the supposedly courtly Menuet is more melancholy and unsettled than “galant” and three of the movements conclude by simply tailing off in a piano muttering in a manner most unconventional and even unsatisfactory by the measure of the age. The Trio of the Scherzo is incongruously cheerful as if it hardly belongs in the quartet at all while the Adagio, exquisitely played here, provides another such interlude of unexpected serenity in an otherwise fitful and capricious work whose restlessness goes a long way towards justifying its kinship with D887. A final irony is that there is no evidence that this or any other string quartets were ever performed in Esterházy; it seems that Haydn wrote them out of an inner compulsion to exorcise his demons while marooned in that civilised but remote gilded cage.
Comparison with the esteemed Buchberger Quartet in the Haydn reveals that the Buchberger is more assertive and plays in a more overtly “con spirito” manner than the Tetzlaff, who are perhaps occasionally almost too refined but thereby bring out the subtleties of this extraordinary music; I would not let that count as a demerit, especially when the pairing here succeeds so triumphantly.