Immaculate Conceptions: The Tetzlaff Quartett’s Late Beethoven

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

The immaculate execution prevailing throughout the Tetzlaff Quartett’s earlier Schubert/Haydn release for Ondine similarly yields top tier Beethoven. Before describing the performances, I should address one characteristic (or quirk, if you will) that crosses that tenuous line between painstaking calibration and micromanagement. It concerns an occasional yet slightly irritating tendency to telegraph Beethoven’s sforzandos with tiny gratuitous dynamic swells. At the same time, the ensemble applies infinite degrees of vibrato with the utmost sophistication and specificity, imparting a stinging intensity to unison passages and delicate contrapuntal interplay in Op. 132’s first movement.

They take the lilting second movement’s “ma non tanto” directive to heart, where minimum vibrato and disembodied tonal qualities transform the Trio section into a folk dance. Here, however, I like the Hagen Quartett’s faster pace and suaver ensemble, plus their unusual rendering of the“L’istesso tempo” over the four alla breve bars, where they create a jolting “four against three” effect. The Tetzlaffs conventionally apply the “L’istesso tempo” to the individual notes in these bars, so that the quarter note equals the quarter note throughout. The great central Adagio is on the cool side, yet the slow and sustained writing couldn’t be more beautifully controlled and modulated. But the fourth movement’s rigid dotted rhythms and arch diminuendos reduce the composer’s joy to cuteness.

Every detail of timbre and bowing seems worked out to the proverbial nines in Op. 130’s first movement, and befits the music’s mercurial nature. At first I felt the second movement’s main theme to be held back and self-aware, yet it provides a contrasting context for the faster and more boisterously rendered second theme to flourish. In the third movement the musicians give distinct points of view to the sustained and detached passages as if they were characters in a drama instead of abstract contrapuntal lines. They glibly toss off the fourth movement, as if embarrassed to dance, yet bring a heartfelt, singing sensibility to the swifter than usual Cavatina.

Instead of Beethoven’s revised finale, the Tetzlaff Quartett presents the composer’s original ending, namely the Grosse Fuge. On one hand, their clipped style and bottomless palette of low-level dynamics transforms the gnarly, combative string writing into something quite lithe, transparent, shimmering, and (dare I say it) fun. Not unlike turning a warty frog into a handsome prince! If you want a Grosse Fuge that scratches and screeches and spews venom on each sforzando hammer blow, look elsewhere. However one ultimately responds to these interpretations, the fact is that Christian Tetzlaff and his colleagues realize their conceptions without the least hindrance, hesitation, or compromise.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Op. 132: Hagen Quartett (DG), Op. 130: Alban Berg Quartett (Warner Classics)

    String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major Op. 130; Grosse Fuge Op. 133; Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op. 132

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