Béla Bartók / Paul Hindemith

Zehetmair Quartett

CD18,90 out of print

Five years after their widely acclaimed recording of Béla Bartók’s fourth string quartet the Zehetmair quartet (in new line-up) play the Hungarian’s masterly fifth quartet, written in 1934, coupled with Paul Hindemith’s fourth from 1921 which is marked by a neo-classicist return to elaborate polyphony and baroque forms: landmarks of 20th century chamber music in interpretations of analytical clarity and emotional intensity.

Featured Artists Recorded

June 2006, Kulturbühne AmBach, Götzis

Original Release Date


  • Streichquartett Nr. 5
    (Béla Bartók)
  • 1Allegro06:58
  • 2Adagio molto05:38
  • 3Scherzo. Alla bulgarese04:38
  • 4Andante04:58
  • 5Finale. Allegro vivace06:37
  • Streichquartett Nr. 4 op. 22
    (Paul Hindemith)
  • 6I Fugato. Sehr langsame Viertel04:49
  • 7II Schnelle Achtel. Sehr energisch, Presto04:25
  • 8III Ruhige Viertel. Stets fließend06:35
  • 9IV Mäßig schelle Viertel01:58
  • 10V Rondo. Gemächlich und mit Grazie03:58
Gramophone, Editor’s Choice
The Strad, Chamber Selection
Fono Forum, Empfehlung des Monats
Diapason d’Or de l’année
Diapason d’Or
Pizzicato, Supersonic Award
Zehetmair leads his wonderfully responsive string quartet through two quartets composed between the two world wars. Bartók’s Fifth from 1934 receives a surprisingly relaxed performance… But the real surprise is Hindemith’s much less familiar Fourth Quartet. Composed in 1921, it’s hardly ever heard, but Zehetmair and his colleagues show that it deserves a place among the finest of 20th-century works for the medium. … There’s a real rigour and intensity about it that are compelling.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian
Pairing these two very different works makes good sense. Both count among the finest (and toughest) string quartets of the first half of the 20th century. And both take the form of symmetrical five-movement structures. The Zehetmair Quartet offer playing of huge finesse in both pieces – alert and exciting in the faster movements, poised and responsive in slower music.
Stephen Pettitt, Sunday Times
Bartok’s 5th and Hindemith’s 4th Quartets make excellent companions on disc… Zehetmair and Co. have looked at Bartok’s manuscript, and seen the way in which it was committed to paper, seemingly at white-hot speed. That elemental energy makes it into the performance, and they’re alive to the folk elements, as well as the sardonic humour of the mechanical-music-box in the last movement.
The hushed, eerily nostalgic opening of the Hindemith is a lovely foil to Bartok’s finale. …
Both are fine performances, but perhaps the greatest achievement is in putting Hindemith after Bartok, and proving that he’s not found wanting.
Andrew McGregor, BBC online (CD of the week)
Analytiker mögen diese ebenso reizvolle wie ungewöhnliche Programmzusammenstellung aufgrund formaler Parallelen genießen. Unmittelbarer erlebende Hörer werden den scharfen musikalischen Kontrast zwischen dem Ungestüm Bartóks und der strukturellen Transparenz Hindemiths zu schätzen wissen. Und doch liegt die Einzigartigkeit dieses Albums vor allem im perfekt abgestimmten Zusammenspiel der vier Musikerinnen und Musiker. Was Thomas Zehetmair, Kuba Jankowicz, Ruth Killius und Ursula Smith hier gelingt, wird in Bartóks aschfahlem Adagio molto am deutlichsten: Wie eine Grisaille steht es inmitten der feurigen vier anderen Sätze – und wird in all seiner klanglichen Reduktion doch mit feinst abgestuften Schattierungen dargeboten.
Carsten Fastner, Die Zeit
An vorzüglichen Aufnahmen der Bartók-Quartette herrscht wahrlich kein Mangel ... Und dennoch: So wie hier, bei Thomas Zehetmair und seinen famosen Mitstreitern, hat man das fünfte Quartett aus dem Jahr 1934 einfach noch nicht gehört. ... Welch eine innige, tief anrührende Musik! ... Dieser glühend intensiven Interpretation steht die Aufnahme des vierten Hindemith-Quartetts in nichts nach. ... Packend und mitreißend das Ganze, vom ersten bis zum letzten Ton: eine Aufnahme, die man in ein paar Monaten sicher auf dem Zettel haben muss, wenn es gilt, die Kammermusikeinspielung des Jahres 2007 zu benennen.
Marcus Stäbler, Fono Forum
Bartóks Viertem folgt jetzt das Fünfte, diesmal nicht mit Hartmann, sondern mit Hindemith kombiniert. Und wieder ist das Ergebnis in seinem Detailreichtum und der fiebrigen Intensität überragend. Ein furioser Zugriff, der ganz auf Bartóks wegweisende Modernität setzt, einsame Gesten über fahlen Akkorden umherirren lässt, dem Scherzo die letzte Heiterkeit austreibt, das Andante in gläserne Kühle taucht, die grandiose Musik passagenweise ins Geräuschhafte überführt.
Oswald Beaujean, Partituren
Deux réussites exceptionnelles pour un disque essentiel.
Jean-Michel Molkhou, Diapason
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