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An Interview with Thomas Zehetmair

When listening to your new recording with the scores, one immediately notices the quartet’s subtle gradations of piano and pianissimo.

Basically we try to follow the composer’s instructions as closely as possible, but because we play from memory it might happen that a few more details emerge from the score. We feel it’s very important for a piano to be really soft rather than using a full quartet sonority.

Playing from memory means that all four members have truly internalized the music and can play more freely…

Yes, it does. It allows us to create an even larger overview of the whole piece. We also communicate better because we don’t have music stands blocking our view.

Doesn’t that imply a lot more work for each player?

Absolutely. Individual preparation is very important. It also saves rehearsal time if everyone already knows their part by heart, since they can pay much more attention to the impulses from the other players.

Can this approach be maintained for a large active repertoire, or is it only possible when limited to a few select works?

Actually, for us it’s the only alternative. We’re not just chamber musicians; each of us has a multitude of other activities. But even so we’re not a part-time quartet; we work on our pieces over the entire year. Every year we learn a new program, three to four pieces, always by heart. They form the repertoire we play on each of our big tours, usually for a month at a time. Then we immediately start learning our next program.

You can study a work with more intensity when you don’t have to cultivate a large repertoire.

Quite right. The idea behind our quartet arose as a reaction to the many chamber music festivals I visited regularly for years. At those festivals one absorbed a huge number of pieces, rehearsed intensively for a couple of days, and had a great time with lots of talking and playing. It was a very nice period, but now it’s over; this working method doesn’t appeal to me any more. We don’t want to have to ask each other, “What exactly do you play in this or that passage?” That was almost the main topic of conversation at rehearsals. Now we cultivate the opposite extreme. As a result, we’ve gained so much freedom that no two bars sound alike, not even at recording sessions, because so many new things are constantly cropping up.

Your timbre and dynamics seem constantly readjusted and re-calibrated. In fact, we never hear a standard espressivo sound at mezzo-forte. You avoid routine at all costs, don’t you?

Obviously we’re not interested in routine. And a piece like Bartók’s Fifth, which we’ve often played in concert, doesn’t get any easier when we play it from memory. On the contrary, the demands seem to get bigger and bigger. Still, we’re very happy, because we sense that the strengths and input of the four players multiply when we truly listen to each other.

Kuba Jakowicz and Ursula Smith have been in your quartet for only a year and a half, yet the basic features of your sonority seem the same despite the change of membership.

Two of our four players are still what you might call the old guard, and though our approach has evolved it remains basically the same. Sometimes playing from memory has led people to accuse us of showing off. But our object is to cultivate a particular self-critical attitude that always begins by studying the autograph scores. Not only does that open our eyes to many questionable details in the printed editions, it’s also a great source of inspiration.

How did the collaboration with your new members come about?

Both were very interested in this special form of chamber playing. Often people are enthusiastic at first, but then the work turns out to be far more stressful than they anticipated. It’s completely wrong to expect things to get easier as time goes by, because we want to continue evolving as a quartet. Ursula Smith came to us on her own initiative, and that suited us so well that we didn’t have to ponder it at all. With Kuba it was much the same. Both are willing to give so much to the quartet that we’re very happy to have them with us. Each of us can gather his or her own musical experiences throughout the year, which means that when we finally get together we have input from four people and can draw the sum-total.

The Bartók Fifth follows up on your recording of his Fourth, which you combined with Hartmann’s First. This time instead of Hartmann you contrast Bartók with Hindemith. What thoughts underlie your programming policy here?

Bartók and Hindemith were two of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. Both were concert soloists and chamber musicians, and both were active ethnomusicologists. They even met at a conference in Egypt, as you can see from the picture in the CD booklet. Both pieces are laid out in five movements. Actually, Bartók’s Fourth and Fifth are organized symmetrically around a middle movement, which makes them a sort of mini-cycle in his output for quartet, with the Fourth being extremely compact and the Fifth unrelievedly savage and noticeably longer. With Hindemith the five-moment design is so conceived that the first movement merges with the second, and the fourth with the fifth. Incidentally, last year we played the second movement of the Hindemith a couple of times as an encore piece without announcing it. That always got the audience guessing!

Hindemith’s quartets are not really well-known, not even in Germany …

Nobody came up with Hindemith. Many aficionados guessed Veress, others thought it was another Bartók movement. Yet Hindemith’s Fourth used to be the pièce de résistance of the Amar Quartet. They played it in concert some 160 times, and it still speaks directly to audiences today.

Perhaps because it was conceived from the players’ standpoint, with all those long and effective solos.

That’s right. Bartók too was very well-versed in string playing, but his form is tighter, and the writing is – if I may say so – more functional because of the dense counterpoint. Hindemith’s string writing is more melodious. But his quartets are so fabulous they absolutely deserve to come out of mothballs.

What are your plans for the near future?

We’ll work a bit longer together in 2007-8 because we’ve scheduled a cycle in London’s Wigmore Hall with three programs, each featuring one of the three Schumann quartets. Each of these recitals will be surrounded by a tour. We’ll be studying the Schubert Quintet with Christian Poltéra on second cello. And in March 2008 we’ll be giving the première of Heinz Holliger’s string quartet in Cologne, a piece he’s writing for us. He’s working on it with terrific gusto at this very moment, and we’re greatly looking forward to it.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski

The Zehetmair Quartet was founded in 1994. After its first tour in spring 1998 it received invitations to return from every concert organizer. Its annual European tours have been augmented by concerts in the United States (2001 and 2003) and Japan (2002). Highlights of 2004 were guest appearances at the Edinburgh Festival, the Helsinki Festival, and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival and in spring 2006 a highly successful tour took it to Vienna, Berlin, Cologne, Zurich, Madrid, Lisbon, Manchester, and other capitals. The four musicians also made guest appearances in Japan in February 2007.

In 2000 the Quartet made its ECM début with Bartók’s Fourth and Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s First, an album that won the quarterly German Record Critics’ Prize. Their 2004 release of Schumann quartets received Gramophone’s Record of the Year Award, the Diapason d’Or, the Edison Classical Music Award (Netherlands), and two Belgian awards: the Caecilia Prize and the Klara Prize for the year’s best international release.

Second violinist Kuba Jakowicz and cellist Ursula Smith joined the quartet in 2005.