Friday, 16 June 2017

The Tetzlaff Quartett in late Schubert

All my musical life, I have held the music of Franz Schubert in high regard, particularly his later works: the final three piano sonatas, the final string quartets, and the Winterreise song cycle. A high place is reserved for Schubert's last string quartet, in G major D.887. I came to know it from an LP with the Quartetto Italiano (a performance I still have) and then from the Busch Quartet, recorded in the 1930s. Those two performance were very different, with the Italians bringing their smooth, wonderful tone to the work, whilst the Busch players presented a starker picture. Now along comes the Tetzlaff Quartett, and the mood is starker still – rather like the recent recording of Death and the Maiden with the Pavel Haas Quartet that I so much enjoyed recently.

The Tetzlaff Quartett reveals a more complex emotional world than that suggested by the Quartetto Italiano, with the Italians' softer colours and ironing out of dissonances and dynamic extremes. With Tetzlaff, we wonder at Schubert's kaleidoscopic harmonic shifts as well as at his constant shifts of mood. Looking at the score, pp and ff seem to be alternating every few bars, and the score is littered with accidentals, keeping the harmonic language vague, even at times bringing to mind Schubert's later Austrians – Mahler, Zemlinsky or Korngold. The Tetzlaffs approach is similar to that of the old Busch Quartet, but with later recording techniques the full force of Schubert's violently alternating dynamic range can be felt to the full.

As I have written before, string quartets have often been a medium of intensely personal communication where composers, free of writing for the masses, could indulge in a little experimentation, or in exploration of more personal feelings, as witnessed by many of the string quartets of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Shostakovitch. Even Mendelssohn departed from his usual pleasant sounds with his string quartet in F minor opus 80, written immediately after the death of his sister. As with the Pavel Haas in Death and the Maiden, I am happy to add the Tetzlaff Quartett's recording of Schubert's final string quartet to my Schubert pantheon.

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