Violinist Thomas Zehetmair has recently erupted in the classical music world, thanks to numerous insightful performances as a soloist and conductor and with his much-heralded string quartet. It was with the last-named ensemble – the Zehetmair Quartet – that he made his Triangle debut on December 8, courtesy of Durham’s Chamber Arts Society. Reynolds Theater was packed for the occasion, and the bill of fare, which included Haydn and Schumann, sandwiching a rarely-heard quartet by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-63), cannot have been the only draw. One suspects instead that the ensemble itself was at least a co-equal attraction.

One reason for this may be ascribed to advance publicity, for the group has played the program offered in Durham elsewhere, and it has drawn rave reviews. It didn’t take long to figure out why this is so. The foursome–violinists Zehetmair and Matthias Metzger, violist Ruth Killius and cellist Françoise Groben–seat themselves in olden style; the two violinists face each other, with the violist and cellist between them, at the back of the group. They play without music, from memory, which clearly increases interaction among the artists but may increase the risk factor by several notches, too.

Their realization of Haydn’s Quartet in C, Op. 74/1, was bracing, crisp, clear, richly shaded and varied in terms of dynamics, and wonderfully expressive. Hartmann’s “Carillon” Quartet–named for a prize the 1933 composition won in 1936–was probably not known by most members of the audience (although the visitors are among those who have recorded it), but it proved immediately accessible, was fascinating and would doubtless repay repeated hearings. It begins with the solo viola, whose line is in turn taken up by the other instruments. Following the introduction there is a lot of dialogue, not all of it genteel, and a good bit of repetition, as passages are tossed back and forth. The cello punctuates the intense slow movement, which is said to have been based on a Hebrew song. There were some restless coughs from the crowd as the last movement began, but the brilliance of the music soon overpowered all the ambient noise as the piece raced to its somewhat abrupt conclusion. The artists were warmly applauded.

The program ended with a magical reading of Schumann’s Third Quartet, music that, thanks to several recent recordings, has at last begun to take on a life of its own in the mainstream, outside the shadows of the composer’s songs, piano music and symphonies. The Zehetmair Quartet is of fairly recent vintage, and other critics have commented that it has yet to settle in completely, but the group’s realization of this score betrayed no significant shortcomings–the opening movement was, in a word, extraordinary, the variations of the second movement were revealed with astonishing clarity and brilliance, the slow movement unfolded gloriously and repeatedly touched the heart in the process, and the finale was brought to vibrant life. Despite enthusiastic applause from many standing patrons, there was no encore, but surely our local appetites have been whetted for a repeat performance by this group.