The Hugo Wolf Quartett came to play serious music, and they did so with severity of concentration and devotion to the craftsmanship of sound, devoid of theatrical contortion and hair-flipping. In the first concert of the season Saturday at Dumbarton Church in Georgetown, the mostly Austrian members of the string quartet (the second violinist was born in Switzerland) put all of their performance’s considerable drama and engagement into the music, rather than into their gestures and facial expressions.
Unlike some other string quartets, these four musicians did not feel the need to scrape every last ounce of sound from the strings. Beginning with a glowing rendition of Schubert’s one-movement “Quartettsatz” in C minor, D. 703, they played with a mellow amber tone that was carefully balanced and rarified. The cello did not growl, the viola did not bark and the violins did not wail over the top of the ensemble. The intensity of the performance came from the fleet tempo and the rise and fall of expressive phrasing.
Schumann’s F major quartet (Op. 41, No. 2) had a more restless quality. It is a less appealing piece than the ethereal Schubert, perhaps more neurotic, but the quartet gave it lightness and beauty, especially the rowdy fun of the fourth movement, playing that took risks, even if that meant dropping some notes along the way. Finally, the D minor string quartet of the group’s namesake, Hugo Wolf, was given a performance evoking the existential desperation of Goethe’s Faust. The playful scherzo of the second movement had dark overtones; the vivacious fourth movement was full of witty repartee; and the third movement featured the high chords of the three upper instruments, radiant like a pristine aureole.