Arts & Events

Tetzlaff Quartet Plays Mozart, Berg, and Schubert

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 17, 2017 - 02:59:00 PM

The Tetzlaff Quartet, formed in 1994, is comprised of Christian Tetzlaff as first violinist, Elisabeth Kufferath as second violinist, Hanna Weinmeister as violist, and Tanja Tetzlaff as cellist. On Sunday afternoon, November 12, under the auspices of Cal Performances the Tetzlaff Quartet gave a concert at Berkeley’s Hertz Hall in which they played Mozart’s String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat Major, K. 428, Alban Berg’s String Quartet, Op. 3, and Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D. 887. All three of these quartets were written by composers in Vienna: Mozart’s in 1784, Berg’s in 1910, and Schubert’s in 1826. 

First on the Tetzlaff Quartet’s program was Mozart’s 16th String Quartet. This quartet in E-flat Major was the third of a set of six quartets Mozart dedicated to Joseph Haydn, from whom Mozart said he learned much about quartet-writing. In the six “Haydn Quartets,” Mozart definitely deepened and expanded the emotional and harmonic range of quartet-writing. In the E-flat Major quartet, an indication of this willingness to explore new musical territory is evident right from the start. As Dr. Richard E. Rodda wrote in program notes for this Tetzlaff Quartet concert, “The unsettled quality of this work, the sense of straining after strong emotional effect, is established immediately with the main theme, one of the most unusual opening gestures in Classical music – an octave leap followed by a tortuous series of tonality-defying intervals played in mysterious unison by all of the participants.” When this music bursts into dissonant harmony, we are well embarked on a path of chromatic ambiguity that, 76 years later, would lead to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  

There are Wagnerian adumbrations too in the chromaticism of the second movement of Mozart’s E-flat Major Quartet, especially in this Andante’s second theme, exquisitely played here by the Tetzlaff Quartet. A Menuetto movement follows with hammer-like chords over a delicate phrase, and there are surprising key progressions in this movement’s trio section. The fourth and final movement is this work’s most Haydnesque in its light and airy effervescence, punctuated here and there by instants of unexpected silence that serve to heighten the drama of what ensues. The Tetzlaff Quartet dispatched this highly inventive Mozart Quartet with great intensity and sensitivity. 

Next on the program was Alban Berg’s String Quartet No. 3. Though I have a particular fondness for Berg’s later effort in quartet-writing, the Lyric Suite Quartet of 1926, I welcomed the opportunity, a rare one, to hear a leading string quartet perform Berg’s Op. 3 Quartet from 1910. This is a work that straddles the border between late 19th-century chromatic harmony (and Romanticism) and modern atonality of the Second Viennese School. Berg, even more than his mentor Arnold Schoenberg, was comfortable in this intermediate zone, and unlike Schoenberg, never needed the austere device of twelve-tone row construction to anchor his music.  

In Berg’s Op. 3 Quartet there are only two movements. The first, marked Langsam, is lyrical and reflective, while the second is agitated. Throughout this work Berg plays innovatively with traditional structures and forms. The sonata form anchors the first movement, the rondo form anchors the second. However, so complex are the harmonies, and so complex is the interplay among the four instruments, that this string quartet sounds strikingly modern, perhaps even more modern than its later sister, the Lyric Suite Quartet of 1926. The Tetzlaff Quartet tackled the difficult passage-work of the Berg Op. 3 Quartet with admirable tenacity, giving this work a sympathetic reading that brought out its many noteworthy features. 

After intermission the Tetzlaff Quartet performed Franz Schubert’s last string quartet, the 15th, in G Major, D. 887. Once again, I welcomed the opportunity to hear a leading string quartet perform a work one doesn’t often get to hear in concert. Indeed, this final Schubert quartet is performed far less frequently than his earlier and more famous quartets and quintets, which I dearly love. The opening movement begins with a swelling chord and a leaping motif over dotted rhythms. The main theme is based on the opening, leaping motif. The second subject offers syncopation and a chordal structure over the dotted rhythms of the opening. The development section is extensive, offering uncertain harmonies and rhythmic agitation. The recapitulation reworks all the earlier material, as in traditional sonata form. The second movement, an Andante, opens with an extended, soulful song for solo cello, exquisitely played here by Tanja Tetzlaff. Suddenly, the music explodes in violent fashion, with agitated rhythms, bold scales, quaking tremolos, and abrupt dynamic shifts. When calm is restored, the cello and violin explore the opening lyrical theme until, once again, violent music intervenes. When calm is restored this time, there is a sense that calm itself is a tenuous mood, one that can change abruptly at any moment.  

The third movement offers a Scherzo that features six quick notes followed by three longer ones. In the trio section, a dance theme appears in the style of an Austrian Ländler. This is open-hearted, untroubled music, perhaps the only such music in a work that otherwise offers storm and stress. The fourth and final movement is based on a tarantella melody, and it abounds in shifts between major and minor forms of the tonic triad. This finale offered the Tetzlaff Quartet a vigorous workout for all four instrumentalists, and they performed it brilliantly. I was especially impressed by the extraordinary vigor of cellist Tanja Tetzlaff and violist Hanna Weinmeister, though I must also praise violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Elisabeth Kufferath for the strength and beauty of their performance. All told, this was an exciting concert offering difficult, innovative works in the string quartet repertory, all three emanating from the city of Vienna at three distinct epochs of that city’s musical history.