Zehetmair Quartet

Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham

The Guardian, Wednesday 5 July 2006

They may have been going for over a decade, but there’s still something miraculous about every concert the Zehetmair Quartet play. They perform every programme entirely from memory, and the music seems to spring fully formed from the collective consciousness of the four players, led by violinist Thomas Zehetmair. But as well as the vertiginous thrill of wondering how it is possible for four people to memorise a programme like the line-up of Mozart, Bartok and Hindemith they played the Pittville Pump Room in Cheltenham, it is the interaction between the musicians that is so startling. An early Mozart string quartet in G major, K156, was catalysed by the way each gesture, like the opening of the minor key slow movement, was shaped with infinite care, each player acutely sensitive to the minute inflections of phrasing and tempo of the others.

In Mozart’s later “Hunt” Quartet, the slow movement was even more affecting: Zehetmair gave an unprepossessing tune a magical musical tenderness before it was passed to cellist Ursula Smith and played with still greater gentleness and insight. But it was their performance of Bartok’s epic Fifth Quartet that was the highlight of the programme. The enormous dynamic range the Zehetmairs create – from shimmering, delicate pianissimos to towering climaxes – made for a visceral experience. They revealed the astonishing textural imagination of this music, the heightened pizzicatos and bowing techniques that made the players sound like a chorus of buzzing nocturnal insects, and the unbounded rhythmic energy that Bartok conjures from the simplest of musical building blocks. The piece creates a sort of hybrid folk music, and in the Zehetmairs’ performance, it was as if this rich, complex idiom was being improvised right in front of you. Not content with the challenges of Bartok and Mozart, an encore of a movement from a quartet by Hindemith was yet another demonstration of the unique alchemy between this group of players.


WITH so much music heard this year in celebration of Chopin’s bicentenary, it was refreshing that Ursula Smith chose to bypass his cello sonata for her Music at Paxton programme on Saturday. As a revelatory alternative, she took inspiration from the centenary of the birth of American composer Samuel  Barber and played his cello  sonata instead. Lyrical and impassioned, it deserves to be better known in the cello repertoire than it is. Smith was not only an authoritative player of it, but has a persuasiveness in performance that sets her apart. The balance between Smith and pianist Jordi Bitlloch was too variable in a first half of Janácek and Beethoven to hear the music at its best.

Sitting on a new, raised platform, the cello’s performing conditions were much better than in the past, although some tinkering may have to be done with the piano to keep it in check. The storytelling essence of Janácek’s Pohádka (Fairy Tale), written in the same year as Barber’s birth, was certainly present in Smith’s highly expressive eloquence. But, as in Beethoven’s G minor Cello Sonata Op 5 No 2, the piano sound was bright yet not always clear. The pair’s partnership, highlighting Smith’s gorgeous, rich tone, was best shown off in Debussy’s 1915 Cello Sonata, written just a few years before his death.