April 27, 2022

Princeton University Concerts Welcomes World-Class Tetzlaff String Quartet

By Nancy Plum

Last Thursday night’s concert by the Tetzlaff String Quartet in Richardson Auditorium was a new beginning on several levels. Not only was this a reschedule of Tetzlaff’s premiere performance on the University Concerts series from two years ago, but it was also the Quartet’s first appearance in the United States in five years. Violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Elisabeth Kufferath, violist Hanna Weinmeister, and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff brought a program of Haydn, Berg, and Schubert to Princeton last week, demonstrating a unique approach to chamber music and why the ensemble is one of the most popular quartets worldwide.

Led by first violinist Christian Tetzlaff, the Tetzlaff Quartet showed a consistently amazing ability to build drama in a piece through dynamics — often collectively bringing the ensemble sound down to almost nothing to disclose a side of the piece not otherwise heard. Opening with Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5, the Tetzlaff musicians played phrase repetitions delicately and allowed repeated notes to gracefully and stylistically taper away. Christian Tetzlaff well maneuvered the technically demanding first violin part, which Haydn had composed for the particularly gifted concertmaster of his court orchestra. 

Throughout Quartet No. 5, the Tetzlaff players well captured the nickname of this set of pieces as the “Sun” quartets, but also showed that the sun can be dark and obscure as well. Especially in the second movement “Minuet-Trio,” sequential passages were always played with direction, and the musicians well captured Haydn’s folk-like and outdoorsy atmosphere in the “Trio.” First violinist Tetzlaff remained the musical leader throughout the work, executing especially complex and heavily ornamented passages, but always with the solid support of the other three players. 

Alban Berg’s 1910 String Quartet, Op. 3 drew a great deal of influence from the late 19th-century compositional school, despite Berg’s studies with modernist Arnold Schoenberg. The two-movement work incorporated both 20th-century musical language and 19th-century lyricism, and from the outset the Tetzlaff players brought out the intense emotionalism and long melodic lines of Berg’s music. The overall ensemble sound was very lean, with cellist Tanja Tetzlaff particularly busy with the jagged themes and fierce second movement variations. Violist Weinmeister had a chance to stand out in extended viola passages of the first movement against the driving repetitions of the first violin.

The Haydn and Berg works seemed to be merely a warm-up to Franz Schubert’s 1824 dramatic String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, known as “Death and the Maiden.” Based on one of Schubert’s own songs, this string quartet demonstrated the composer as always the poet, expressing unfulfilled longing and a search for peace through his music. Following a dramatic opening to the first movement, the Tetzlaff Quartet displayed the same dynamic contrasts as with the other two pieces on this program, well depicting the story behind the music. Fast passages were played cleanly, especially from first violinist Tetzlaff, whose technical requirements seemed nonstop at times. The second movement “Andante” was reverent, with each variation on Schubert’s song melody showing Viennese elegance even through musical agitation and fear. Driving dotted rhythms recalled the galloping horse of Schubert’s earlier song “Erlkönig,” and a particularly sweet third movement “Trio” stretched the violins to the highest register. Increases in dynamic sound throughout the piece were so uniform it was as if someone had turned up a radio, demonstrating the solid communication among the musicians. The Tetzlaff String Quartet came to full force at the conclusion of the fourth movement “Prestissimo,” with a fast and furious coda reminiscent of Beethoven. 

Last Thursday night’s performance was the penultimate concert in a Princeton University Concerts season, which was finally able to reach its peak in these late spring months. With audiences gradually building back to full houses, Princeton University Concerts has been able to successfully and admirably continue its more than 125-year history of bringing the world’s most celebrated artists to Princeton University.