Friday, August 15, 2008

Henschel Quartet at Dartington Hall,Devon UK

The Henschel siblings –violinists Christoph Henschel and Markus Henschel and violist Monika Henschel-Schwind – have been playing music together from a young age. In 1994, they were joined by ‘cellist Mathias Beyer-Karlshoj to form what has become the illustrious Henschel Quartet, an ensemble performing widely and the recipient of many prizes. Quartet members were tutors and performers at the 2008 Dartington Hall International Summer School.

The quartet’s concert in the Great Hall on the Dartington Hall campus in Devon UK, opened with Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Quartet no. 7 in f sharp minor, opus 108. Shostakovich composed the work, his shortest quartet, in 1960, dedicating it to the memory of his first wife Nina, who had died in 1954. Moving swiftly from the Allegretto to a Lento movement and on to the final Allegro-Allegretto, the Henschel Quartet outlined the melancholy character of this work, at the same time addressing other traits of the composer present in the work: the whimsical opening figure of the first movement, the almost visual bare, Russian landscape of the somber Lento and the somewhat devilish opening of the intense, sometimes cynical, contrapuntal third movement, a movement that includes thematic material from the previous two movements. The quartet ends on a major chord, a gesture of reflection rather than optimism. The players presented the drama of the piece with total involvement.

The next work on the program was Erwin Schulhoff’s (1894-1942) Quartet no.1. Born in Prague of German-Jewish parents, Schulhoff became a virtuoso pianist. His own composition absorbed both German and Czech idiom as well as that of Debussy, but was influenced by the jazz he had heard when in Weimar and Paris. Schulhoff perished in the Wuelzberg concentration camp. His Quartet no.1 was composed after his return to Prague in 1924. The opening Presto con fuoco is rich in texture, intense and energetic, certainly eastern European in character. The second movement – Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca – sets bitter-sweet melodies against a pizzicato background. The Allegro giocoso alla Slavacca presents a fiery set of folk-type dances, one interrupting the other with a sense of urgency. Strangely enough, Schulhoff ends his quartet with a slow, somber movement. Here he creates a distant, hazy texture which develops into dark heaviness. The movement has a bleak message, with the ‘cello adopting a persistent “clock-ticking” motif. A work of virtuosity, color and originality, it was given a profound and moving reading by the players.

The concert ended with Franz Schubert’s String Quartet no.15 in G major, D887. Composed within ten days, in 1826, at a time when Schubert’s reputation in Vienna was gathering momentum, it was his last completed quartet. It opens with a highly contrasted Allegro molto moderato, with drama and melancholy juxtaposed, and the players brought out the strong dynamic contrasts of the movement. The second movement is intimate, singing and serene, disturbed, however, by two vehement outbursts. As in the first movement, the ‘cello plays a central role, with Beyer-Karlshoj’s sensitive bow weaving in each of the plaintive melodies. The Scherzo was light and whimsical, but not lacking in cantabile melodiousness. Schubert, leaving some surprises to the last movement, introduces abrupt changes from major to minor and plays with dotted rhythms and triplets. J.A.Westrup referred to this last movement as “a mad rondo, violent in rhythm and mad in harmony”. Schubert knew he was dying at the time he was writing the quartet; this work is surely a combination of defiance and resignation. The Henschel Quartet’s performance of it was motivated and sincere.

It was an interesting and balanced program. Playing was rich in color, articulate and expressive. This was string playing and musicianship at its finest.

The Henschel Quartet (Germany)
Christoph Henschel-first violin
Markus Henschel-second violin
Monika Henschel-Schwind-viola
Mathias D. Beyer-Karlshoj-‘cello
The Great Hall
Dartington Hall,Devon UK
July 27, 2008

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