Given the house rules in light of corona, concertgoers were welcomed by a handful of masked staff at the Tonhalle Maag, and took their seats directly in a hall that was about one-third full. Tickets had to be ordered online; the box office was closed. There were neither refreshments at the bar nor the usual conversations in the foyer. Without interruption, the slated programme would last some 70 minutes. Despite those limitations, however, the Merel Quartet’s superb players gave a stunning performance. 

Merel Quartet
© Hannes Heinzer

Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet no. 26 in G minor, Op.20 no.3, which dates from 1772, was first on the programme. Considered the first composer of stature to establish the genre as a distinctive musical form, Haydn wrote 68 string quartets, each one distinguished by its rich harmonies and playful exploration of counterpoint. True to form, the Merel’s interpretation showed the G minor Op.20 full of whimsy, humour and striking wit. That Goethe compared the playing of a string quartet with “a conversation among four educated people” comes as no surprise: the work masterfully draws out the instruments’ individual voices in turn, each player defining passages with his or her own charisma, intelligence and consummate skill. 

In the Allegro con spirito first movement, cellist Rafael Rosenfeld shook up the house with his energetic attacks, albeit he was challenged for dramatic effect by Alessandro D’Amico’s highly animated viola. First violin Mary Ellen Woodside gave distinct and precise direction, and her line was consistently crisp and transparent, and often emotive; she met Edouard Mätzener’s animated second violin with rotund and luxurious sound. In the second movement, the melodic elements resounded among all four players almost like a folksong, while in the third, Poco adagio, the sound was sensuous. Rosenfeld’s substantive solo cello therein, full of resonance and body, might best be described as transcendent. Woodside’s first violin launched the Allegro molto finale with energy that was followed, in turn, by the demonstrative voice of D’Amico’s viola, and lots of physical action: he leaned out towards his music stand again and again, smiling at the other players, too, through their intricate harmonies.  

Second on the programme was Death and the Maiden, which Schubert wrote in 1817 in response to the poem by Matthias Claudius. The work describes both the terrors and the comforts offered by the “grisly man of bone”: Death. While in the first movement, a dark and murky background was broken up by the strings’ restless strikes, the second movement started with the inklings of a tender lullaby, then moved to sounds more unrestrained, and was hallmarked by a resonant cello solo. Mätzener often shifted his legs to ground himself beneath his chair as he, too, played through demanding and highly animated passages, and, in the Scherzo, from lyrical to more largely expressive lines. In the final Presto, which includes a tarantella – an Italian dance hallmarked by its breakneck speed – Schubert clearly intended turbulence and tragedy to reign. And it was here, the strings all enjoyed a collective fabric of sounds that ranged in dramatic shifts from the lyrical and lullaby to the highly-pointed and feverish. Corona or none, the Merel Quartet gave a truly superb and unforgettable performance.