First published in The Herald on 27 August, 2015
The Zehetmair Quartet often performs from memory — the players learn their parts by heart before they even start to rehearse, and tend to unleash thrilling levels of musical insight and expressive freedom accordingly. There were music stands on stage at this Queen’s Hall morning recital, but the capacity to react to each other and take the music in new directions was there from note one.
The quartet’s leader is the Austrian violinist and conductor Thomas Zehetmair, until last year music director of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and a superb all-round musician, simultaneously assertive and attentive, acutely detailed and instinctive. The Edinburgh-based Christian Elliott recently joined as the group’s cellist — you might recognise him as a regular player in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. He makes a classy fit, just as alert and responsive as his bandmates if not yet quite as prominent a voice in the mix. For me the ensemble’s centrifugal force is violist Ruth Killius: my ear was constantly being drawn to her powerful sound and vibrant ideas.
The programme paired the wit and rigours of Haydn and Hindemith. The Serenade Quartet opened, a breezy work that was possibly composed by someone else but which has a mix of rustic pastiche and refinement that is classic Haydn. There’s no mistaking the composer of the Emperor Quartet, one of Haydn’s boldest and best; the Zehetmairs played both with agile spontaneity and an acute knack for colour calibration. Hindemith’s Fifth Quartet was robust, fiery and malleable with a silvery, haunting Adagio. As an encore we got the second movement of Hindemith’s Fourth Quartet, another adventure in light and shade and capricious spirit.