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Consummate Chamber Music

Hong Kong
Hong Kong City Hall, Central
02/15/2009 -  
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: String Quartet in G major, K. 156
Paul Hindemith: String Quartet No. 4, Op. 22
Robert Schumann: String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41

Thomas Zehetmair (1st violin), Kuba Jakowicz (2nd violin), Ruth Killius (viola), Ursula Smith (cello)

The Zehetmair Quartet (© Keith Pattison)

Playing chamber music requires a supreme combination of a musician’s consummate artistry and impeccable virtuosity, as well as a most intimate communication both musically and spiritually. That is why so many great masters, such as Casals, Cortot, Heifetz, or Rubinstein, realized this immense gratification and were very much devoted to chamber music at their late age. On Sunday evening, Hong Kong audience were lucky enough to witness four artistically distinguished musicians dedicating their entire musical minds just for one purpose – exploring the joy of playing together.

Their tremendous enthusiasm and selfless devotion towards chamber music playing can be verified by merely one fact – all of them were playing from memory throughout the whole evening, even for the last encore. This is common for a soloist but very rare for chamber musicians. Notwithstanding, hardly a bar went by without the four players turning the score into electrifying passion, delivering the heightened musicianship with marvelous collaboration. Since none of them was reading the score, their visions could be totally utilized for communicating and following the leadership under Thomas Zehetmair. But it was this leadership that sacrificed the balance and equal participation of each voice, a fundamental of chamber music performance.

The opening Mozart’s String Quartet was rendered with utmost tenderness and exquisiteness. How rarely can one hear the delicate changes in articulation and dynamics so subtly and effectively observed? One of their most amazing qualities was the whispering pianissimo which was barely audible even when sitting at the fifth row. Finely polished phrases and daintily delivered filigree were also cardinal features to this rendition. The second Adagio movement was introspective and solemn, and, at the same time, without compromising youthful Mozart’s pleasance and simplicity (this String Quartet was composed when Mozart was only 16 years old).

Hindemith’s 4th String Quartet was a showpiece to the Zehetmair Quartet – it was included in their price-winning recording released under ECM last year. The four musicians seemed more intent on mining this music’s inherent drama than on being strictly devoted to the letter of the score, and the piece was rendered with a compulsive drive that magnified both its surface drama and underlying passion. Once again, their vivid dynamic contrast brought to the audience visceral excitement and vaporous pianissimo. Playing at extreme softness and extravagant intimacy is ‘chamber’-musically appropriate and requires transcendental techniques. But sometimes I wonder if it is fitting for a concert hall of two thousand seats. With such dynamic constraint, audience at the balcony certainly missed some of the music’s rapt harmony and bewitching inner voice.

Schumann’s String Quartet in A minor in the second half pushed every concertgoer’s emotion to a climax. Their spacious dynamic range and spellbound articulation successfully delineated every light and shade of the music. The romanticized phrasings in the first movement, Bartók-like accents in second, mellow, yet stark rumination in the third, and, most wonderfully, the dexterity with aplomb in the last movement, all tellingly exemplified the four players’ high-caliber artistry and flawless virtuosity. My one minor reservation to this otherwise impeccable performance was again their slightly flubbed balance – Mr. Zehetmair’s glinting and glittering tone far outshone Mr. Jacowicz’s suave and silky sound. Moreover, Zehetmair’s role was perhaps too domineering among the group, in all the three pieces.

The audience simply could not be satisfied without an encore to resolve the climax. The Zehetmair Quartet generously bestowed the Scherzo from Bruckner’s String Quartet, another satisfying reading both collaboratively and musically. It triumphantly concluded Mr. Zehetmair’s appearance (as both a conductor and a chamber musician) in 2009 Hong Kong Arts Festival. It is precious that Hong Kong concertgoers know one more respectful artist this year.

We are looking forward to hearing young pianist Sergio Tiempo’s piano recital this weekend. Keep tuned to ConcertoNet.com for its review.

Danny Kim-Nam Hui



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