Dallas — If you regularly attend the concerts that the Dallas Chamber Music Society presents at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium, you might think there is an endless supply of brilliant young ensembles. Actually, you might be correct in that assumption. Of course, DCMS is always on the lookout for the best of the best to bring to Dallas. That, they do.
Such has been the case with the last three concerts as one amazing group after another wowed the audience and sent this writer, and others of this ilk, to the thesaurus hunting for adjectives. The Minetti Quartett, presented on Monday to close DCMS’s season, continued their record of musical home runs.
The program started out with Haydn and ended with Beethoven, nothing surprising there, but the Austrian quartet played a practically unknown quartet by Alexander von Zemlinsky, a frequently overlooked 20th century composer.
Maybe it’s just a perspective that comes with advanced age, but these exceptional string players (Maria Ehmer and Anna Knopp, violin; Milan Milojicic, viola; and Leonhard Roczek, cello) look so young that you question the program note’s statement that they have been playing together for 13 years. Did they start in elementary school?
Once they started to play, there wasn’t even a hint of anything but a mature performance that was as tight as last season’s tux coat. In fact, showing a little more youthful enjoyment when playing Haydn and Beethoven’s often lighthearted passages would have enlivened the very serious performance approach.
Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 76, No. 4, has a nickname of “The Sunrise” because of a rising opening theme over sustained harmonies, which is hardly that grand. Minetti did not make a big deal out of it either. What they did emphasize was Haydn’s admirable use of the sonata form. It is one thing to realize his perfecting of the form when you have the score in front of you but something special when a string quartet plays it with such clarity.
There was nothing lighthearted about Zemlinsky’s solemn String Quartet No. 4 [Suite], Op. 25, written on the devastating occasion of the death of his student, twelve-tone pioneer Alban Berg.
Zemlinsky’s quartet is as big a contrast to Haydn’s relatively cheery music. This is a dense composition using chromatic harmonies that are just barely in the tonal system. The Minetti paid very close attention to bringing out the musical lines in such a way that the texture was remarkably clear. It was still a difficult listen, requiring some intense concentration for almost 30 minutes—with great rewards for those who could do it.
As mentioned above, the performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F major, Op. 18, No. 1, could have been improved if the players had more fun with it. Beethoven loves to shock and toy with his materials. Some smiles here and there would let the audience in on the jokes, and given them some permission to smile with them. However, it was an interesting choice for this particular program since the first theme of the first movement is very close to one Haydn used in his Op. 50, No. 1. Of course, few in the audience knew the specifics of Beethoven’s homage, but the Haydnesque feel of the opening helped the clear away Zimlinsky’s dark clouds.
The hallmarks of this quartet’s abilities were apparent in all three of the selections: absolute perfection in intonation, technical mastery and an exceptional clarity of the four lines. In fact, a neophyte to the art of string quartet playing, mentioned that he had little trouble following the independent lines, which is more of a compliment that any words I could write. This is partially due to their close attention to balance and phrasing. They played all of the rubato in all three selections with an admirable precision, born of practice for sure, but also due to a remarkable unity of concept.
The Minetti Quartett was a fitting close to an exceptional season.