Preceding the Zehetmair Quartet's arrival in Buffalo was their reputation for memorizing virtually everything they play. Consequently, the Mary Seaton Room stage looked odd Tuesday evening, adorned with just four chairs, not a music stand in sight.
They can do this because they tour with only one program each year, claiming that committing the music to memory enables them to achieve a greater freedom and deeper level of musical communication in performance.
There is no way to back up and do an A-B comparison without the memorization, but the Zehetmair performances certainly were distinguished by an extraordinary level of cohesion, precision and emotional unanimity.
In the 16-year-old Mozart's Quartet No. 3 in G, K156 the artists slowed the opening Presto down to about an allegretto tempo, all to the music's advantage, and applied a probing approach to the slow movement, where the balance tipped toward the cello.
Except for the winsome rising-and-falling motif of its reflective central movement, there's little that's warm and cuddly about Hindemith's 1921 Quartet No. 4. It is, nonetheless, music whose clarity of construction, dramatically angular lines, strength of expression, and occasional savagery of attack communicate easily with the listener, usually leaving a distinctive memory of a composition that knows where it wants to go and leads one's ear compellingly on that journey.
The Zehetmair Quartet was an interesting tour guide on this journey. The music was exquisitely played for the most part, but the Zehetmair's highly individual penchant for dynamic extremes, with many lengthy passages at a "pppp" pianissimo level, robbed the Hindemith of much of its positive robustness.
Because Robert Schumann's expressive soul was so wrapped up in the piano, his Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet have long been the most popular of his chamber works. His relatively overlooked three string quartets have needed a champion, and now have found one in the Zehetmair Quartet, whose recording of Quartets Nos. 1 and 3 was named Gramophone Magazine's 2003 Record of the Year.
Their affinity for his 1842 Quartet No. 1 was obvious from the conversationally phrased first movement through the rugged Scherzo and the meltingly lovely Adagio to the exciting Presto finale. The artists' predilection for wide dynamic gradients was far less extreme in the Schumann, and when they took the passage just before the final coda at a whispered level it was devastatingly effective. It was the finest performance of a Schumann quartet I've ever heard.
Presented by Buffalo Chamber Music Society on Tuesday night in Mary Seaton Room of Kleinhans Music Hall.