In the elegant, light wood-panelled New World surroundings of Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, a decidedly Old World programme: Germany's Tetzlaff Quartet playing three string quartets from different Viennese composers. But this was no routine exposition of beloved music: the three works performed are very different in character, and the Tetzlaffs fully illuminated the differences.

Tetzlaff Quartet
© Giorgia Bertazzi

The opening work, Mozart's String Quartet in E flat major , K428 is one of Mozart's “Haydn Quartets”, the homage coming mainly in the shape of lightness and good humour. The  first movement was played with delicacy and a clean, open sound – a fresh-tasting amuse-bouche to start the concert. Perhaps, to my ears, a little detached: full emotional involvement was to wait until later. Still, the second movement Andante con moto was a more serious affair, lent intensity by the time honoured means of a slow melody over descending bass figures.

The third movement minuet opened suddenly and was heavily accented, prefiguring the development of that form into the scherzo. The fourth returned to beautiful delicacy, but with the constant feeling that Mozart is ready to spring a surprise on you; when the quartet decided to press on the accelerator, they did so a fair level of force and with perfect togetherness. Considering that string quartet playing is a seated affair, Christian Tetzlaff plays with a surprising amount of physicality, in those heavily accented phrases, bending from the hip to an almost horizontal position. When the close of a phrase demanded a flourish, bows were almost flung in the air; Tetzlaff and second violin Elizabeth Kufferath's pony tails flew as much as the horsehair from bowstrings.

All this reinforced the impression of Mozart in this period as a carefree composer, whose gift for writing beautiful lyrical music is overlaid by his sheer joy at being able to delight (or, perhaps, discombobulate) his audience by coming up with devices that other composers of his day couldn't even imagine.

In temperament, Alban Berg's String Quartet, Op.3 could hardly be more different. The Second Viennese School is often described as being a response to World War I, but that thinking doesn't apply to this work, which was written in 1910, although not published until a decade later. Berg was just 25 – two years younger then Mozart when he wrote the K428 – but this is still a work with darkness and hidden menace, even violence. And, of course, with over two centuries of violin playing between the two, there are far more special effects: harmonics, sul ponticello and more. The shifting moods wash over you in waves, foaming and relaxing: if I could accuse the quartet of a level of detachment in the Mozart, no such detachment was perceptible here. And while Berg's music is, of course, atonal, that atonality in no way implies discordant angularity: there may not be a key to which your ears can make a safe homecoming, but the music enfolds you none the less. The quartet demonstrated wonderful control of dynamics and pace, with the fade to a gentle nocturne, sudden bursts of acceleration, or the poignancy of a few pizzicato notes punctuating the legato flow.

After the interval, Schubert's String Quartet in G major, D887, represented a step back in time, but not a step down in intensity. Schubert was still a young man, but in the grip of the syphilis that would kill him just two years later. D887 shows an undimmed gift for outpouring melody: at 42 minutes, this is a long quartet and one whose melodies captivate from start to finish. But the music is littered with heartache and extremes of mood.

The Tetzlaffs treated us to a masterclass in dynamic contrast. The big recurring opening phrase was huge – hard to believe that four musicians could generate such attack – yet interspersed with playing of the utmost delicacy and refinement. The first movement is very substantial, and to get you throught it, unlike Berg, Schubert is encouraging your ears to come home to a known resting place. The quartet handled deftly the changes of pace and key to bring you safely back after the journey, generating real excitement along the way. The long breathed melody in the second movement, with its chirped accompaniment, was a thing of beauty; the scherzo was pleasantly crisp. Only the fourth movement dragged somewhat: there was exploration of shades of light and darkness in the music, but while some of the threat persisted that had been so evident in the first movement and the Berg that preceded it, the close was a gradual winding down of intensity.

****1