The Tetzlaff Quartet: Crystal-Clear in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

It’s easy to decide to go a concert when you already know and love the music that will be played, but how much more rewarding it is to become smitten with music you doubted you’d even like. I went to hear the brilliant Tetzlaff Quartet (Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Elisabeth Kufferath, violin; Hanna Weinmeister, viola, and Tanja Tetzlaff, cello) play Beethoven; I came away with a newfound interest in the very different music of Alban Berg.

The Tetzlaff Quartet performance in Baldwin Auditorium October 19 was the second in this season’s Chamber Arts series of Duke Performances, but the first concert I’d been able to attend in the newly renovated hall. The pieces played by this virtuosic quartet of German and Austrian musicians (who come together several times a year to perform in some of the world’s finest concert halls) highlighted the acoustic qualities of the new Baldwin. The Berg work, in particular, would not have been the ravishing thing it was in Reynolds Theater.

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum. Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum.
Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Alban Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s in Vienna early in the 20th century, along with Anton Webern. Together they formed a new Viennese school of music, a foray into the new analogous to the new visual art of the Vienna Secession. It turns out that Schoenberg had a foot in both camps, a piece of knowledge that came my way recently when I visited “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900,” at the National Gallery, London. The show included several portraits by Schoenberg, the earlier of which were quite dreadful. Not having any commissions, he wrangled sitters from his family and friends. Fortunately, by the time he painted this portrait of his 25-year-old student, he had acquired a modicum of technique.

Berg began to write his Lyric Suite, performed so touchingly by the Tetzlaff, in 1925. It seems that he fell in love with a woman not his wife in that year, and the Lyric Suite is a passionate coded declaration of love for this woman. It combines Schoenbergian theory with Mahlerian, even Wagnerian, romanticism with extraordinary eloquence, grasping the soul while titillating the intellect.

The work has six sections; the sounds in one feed the sounds in the next, until it circles back around. Many of these sounds are very delicate, as light as insect wings brushing a screen before vanishing like a breath, but as a whole the work is robust, sinuous, replete with human emotion. The quartet made a great wholeness out of the crystalline notes, communicating tenderness, passion and a brilliant self-awareness that eschewed sentimentality.

The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, op. 20, no. 2, a very pretty thing with all the instruments “talking” to each other and motifs racing and chasing each other in the final movement. This quartet is considered the first real string quartet–in its time it was modern–and it made a clever prelude for the Berg Lyric Suite. Following intermission, the players went back a little in time to the timeless Beethoven (whose death mask I’d just seen in the London show, along with drawings made of his hands as he lay dying in 1827–the face was much diminished, but the hands were large and powerful).

The Tetzlaff played one of the late quartets, No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132, from 1825, giving the audience a chance to think back to last year’s concert in Reynolds by the Belcea Quartet, who played op. 130, including the Grosse Fugue, and op. 131, and to contrast the acoustics of the halls and the styles and tones of the two quite different musical quartets, as well as the music itself.

No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132 has five movements, and its opening includes a theme that appears in both the Grosse Fugue and op. 131, but as played by the Tetzlaff, it conveys very different emotions. The Tetzlaff mysteriously combines the robust and earthy with a limpid ethereality that evokes the eternal return. Their playing is so clean and clear that it runs over you like spring water as the feelings run through you: an untormented acceptance of fate, of death; the piquant clarity of vision accompanying reprieve and new strength; the tremendous emotion at the awareness of blood coursing in and out of your heart; the joy of the great dance of life, everlasting.

Belcea Quartet Plays Late Beethoven at Duke

After the exciting, edge-blurring jazzgrass music of the Bela Fleck/Marcus Roberts Trio quartet, heard earlier in the week, the strictly classical Belcea Quartet initially seemed…a little staid. Fresh from Carnegie Hall, the Belcea played an all-Beethoven program of late works, as the quartet comes to the end of a long cycle of study and performance of Beethoven’s entire quartet oeuvre. The Chamber Arts Society/Duke Performances presentation in Reynolds Theater was well attended, but not by adventurous youth. Perhaps that accounted for the notable lack of buzzy anticipation.

Belcea Quartet, photo Duke Performances.

Led by the redoubtable Romanian-born Corina Belcea (b. 1975; she founded the quartet while still a student at London’s Royal College of Music, and is its only remaining original member), the program began with String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, op. 130. This is the piece that originally ended with what quickly became known as the Grosse Fugue (op. 133)–and that is how the Belcea rendered it. Beethoven’s friends told him at the time, the Grosse Fugue overwhelms the first five movements, and should be replaced with something more suitable. He did that, but we were privileged to hear for ourselves why it was a good idea. The Grosse Fugue is so magnificent and complex, it is much better off alone.

The playing initially seemed arid as No. 13 unfolded. The sound was very clear, but dry somehow, and with an uncomfortable edge. In his review of the first of the two Carnegie Hall concerts, which included op. 130, James Oestreich described Belcea’s violin as having an “astringent edge,” which seems accurate–clean, but with a puckering, drawing quality, rather than an enveloping warmth. Yet when the Grosse Fugue began, that very slight tightness gave way to great flexibility as the strings wound along the fantastic routes of the motifs as they lead and follow, reverse and cross each other throughout their transformations. While the mind deploys itself among the patterns, the heart goes straight to the mysteriously emotional quality of the music. Where the playing of op. 130 felt held back, over-ordered, that of the Grosse Fugue expressed within the music’s intricate structure all the freedom of intense familiarity.

As grand as the Grosse Fugue is, it is a puny thing next to the enormous String Quartet no. 14 in C-sharp Minor, op. 131, which the Belcea gave all the passion reserved from No. 13. There’s no neat classicism here, with four or five easily definable movements. No. 14 has seven parts, but they’re not separable. Beethoven was totally deaf when he wrote this–yet he put in so much sound that it is hard to believe that a mere four stringed instruments make it all. He completed it in 1826, a year before his death–but it sounds almost modern (pre-minimalism modern), as well as tortured, transcendent and capital R Romantic. It takes up your soul, bellowing and grappling, and wraps it like Ulysses wrapped the bag of winds. Then, with a few swift final chords, the cords are slashed and the spirit rises roaring.

No encore is possible after this, or even desirable. The musicians could barely stand to bow, and after the third curtain call, we all staggered out, replete with music.

Ocracoke Observer

Community newspaper of Ocracoke, NC

David Cecelski

New writing, collected essays, latest discoveries

Piedmont Trails

Genealogy and History in North Carolina and Beyond

Piedmont Laureate

Promoting awareness and heightened appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont Region

Gilbert and Sullivan's "Patience" -- Director's Blog

a countdown to the next performance, March 26-29, 2020

North Carolina Preservation Consortium

Preserving tangible and intangible heritage of enduring value

The Bamboo Wind

Sculpture & Video Poetry


A topnotch site

peter harris, tapestryweaver

TAPestry And DESIgn

Backstrap Weaving

My weaving , my inspiration, tutorials and more........

Social Justice For All

Working towards global equity and equality

Not At Home In It


inkled pink

warp, weave, be happy!

Peggy Osterkamp's Weaving Blog

"Weaving should be fun!"


Studio Life of a Weaver, Spinner, Dyer

Linda Frye Burnham

Writer and poet

The Upstager

All the world's an upstage.

Literary Life in Italy

Looking at Italy through literature

%d bloggers like this: