Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No 2
Bartok: String Quartet No 4
Beethoven: String Quartet No 15 in A Minor, Op. 132
Any opportunity to hear the brilliant violinist Christian Tetzlaff is never to be turned down, especially when he comes with its own quartet to perform in Carnegie Hall's sleek and intimate Zankel Hall. That's why after serendipitously scoring a ticket to the instantly sold-out concert, I firmly decided that I would not let a lingering bad cold keep me grounded at home while the popular foursome would be churning out works by Haydn, Bartok and Beethoven. So I still showed up, prudently drugged up and armed with water bottle and cough drops, although all those precautions turned out to be completely unnecessary in the end. Once my body and mind were solidly focused on Tetzlaff & Co., nothing else mattered.
Although today Haydn does not exactly stand as a revolutionary figure, back in his days his six Op. 20 quartets decisively broke the mold by giving an equal voice to all four individual instruments while creating seamless musical tapestries. When one of these masterworks is in such expert hands as the Tetzlaff Quartet's, the result is an impeccably executed example of classical refinement at its most intricate and attractive, never mind the unwelcome disturbance created by two late-comers that were let in after the performance had started (?!).
Since the quartet is well-known for its fearless take on contemporary music, Bartok sounded just like the right composer to be featured as he would probably please lovers of esotericism and not scare away the more conservative-minded. Sure enough, the symmetrical five movements of the endlessly inventive, arch-like String Quartet No 4 had plenty of musical gifts for everyone. The third movement, which was the nucleus of the piece, in particular contained mesmerizing cello lines, whose dark lyrical beauty was powerfully enhanced by Tanja Tetzlaff's compelling playing. The fourth movement was a pizzicato-only variation of the second one, adding a whimsical rustic touch to the proceedings, before the fifth movement thematically reprised the first one in an explosion of urgent dance rhythms. When Hungarian imagination and high-spiritedness meets German precision and boldness, anything can happen, and did.
After intermission, we moved on to 45 minutes of Beethovian bliss with his String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132, in which the composer's unmatched mastery of his craft majestically unfolded for posterity. As he was recovering from a major illness and nearing the end of his life, the old man was wrestling with life and death questions, and fortunately for the rest of us, he put them to music. The Tetzlaff Quartet knowledgeably took us on this challenging emotional journey where dark alternates with light, sorrow with happiness, all the way to the assertive victory of life.
We had almost given up on an encore as they had come, bowed and gone three times, but our persistence was eventually rewarded with an lively Allegretto from String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No 3, which took us back right where we started.