Strings in Seligenstadt 2009

Written by: Tully Potter

Each year the Henschel Quartet from Munich gives a three-day festival in the little German town of Seligenstadt, on the River Main, not far from Frankfurt in Hesse. The 2009 event – the twelfth – was unusual, in that the ensemble was celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. In truth it is exactly twenty years since the three Henschel siblings – twins Christoph and Markus, violins, and elder sister Monika, viola – decided they would make quartet-playing their life; but they consider that their career really started when they brought the cellist Mathias Beyer-Karlshøj into their group.

On the opening day, 1 July, it was announced that the quartet members and their friends have set up an organisation to help younger ensembles in their careers. First beneficiaries are the young Diogenes Quartet of Munich. In an enterprising concert for children we were able to take the measure of these fine players (Stefan and Gundula Kirpal, Stephanie Krauss and Stephen Ristau). With the young Spanish conductor Carlos Dominguez as a vivid narrator, we watched the players bring various Haydn movements alive, including the variations from the ‘Emperor’ Quartet, highlighted each player in turn – the children recognised the tune as their national anthem. The final part of the concert was based on the old story of The Musicians of Bremen, with the four players impersonating donkey, dog, cat and cockerel. The new organisation has put the Diogenes Quartet under contract to teach one day a month at two Bavarian music schools. Organiser Ernst Gulpen told us that although Bavaria – just over the River Main – had 280 music schools which all paid lip-service to chamber music, little was in fact being done. It was a shock to hear that even Germany, supposedly so serious about good music, was falling behind in its educational goals.

The three evening events in the festival were part of the Cloister Concerts series that Franz Preuschoff runs at the beautiful old abbey church known as Einhardbasilika, after its ninth-century founder. The musicians play on an improvised platform in the open air and the audience sits in the cloisters or at the side of the courtyard. The sound is excellent and the weather was kind this year, although for a while it was thought that the third concert might have to be played in the church itself. Hazards are the church clock striking each quarter and then the hour, and the occasional aircraft either leaving or approaching Frankfurt. When the Henschels’ main guests, the Paizo Quartet from Copenhagen, were playing there were also two interruptions from a huge bumble bee, which leader Mikkel Futtrup first tried to parry with his bow and finally squashed with his foot, giving me the chance to observe that it was now a bee flat.

When I first met Futtrup, a brilliant violinist who leads the Opera Orchestra in Copenhagen, at a competition some years ago, he had joined the quartet just a week earlier. This time he was responding to an equal emergency, as the ensemble’s two female players were unable to come to Seligenstadt, leaving only cellist Toke Moldrup. The replacements, second violinist Alexander Butz and Brazilian violist Rafael Altino, proved to be considerable characters and fine players, with individual tones.

The Henschels’ recital on 1 July started with Haydn’s G major, Opus 76/Number 1, played with a good deal of wit and rhythmic verve. Then Altino joined them in what was only the third performance ever given of Max Bruch’s 1918 E flat Quintet. One of three late chamber works written for the great German violinist Willy Hess, it was not performed until 1937, when the Schwiller Quartet broadcast it for the BBC, using a copy prepared by Bruch’s daughter-in-law. The other late Quintet and the 1920 Octet were played at the same time but the autograph scores were thought to be lost. Gertrude Bruch’s copies of the A minor Quintet and Octet remained in the BBC Library and the Quintet was published and played in 1988. The Octet autograph then turned up and that too has now been published; both those works are on CPO 999 451-2. The E flat Quintet copy somehow found its way into private hands and was only recently made available. Henle published the work and the Henschels and Kazuki Sawa gave it last year at Wigmore Hall. They have now recorded it successfully and NEOS Classics NEOS 30901 was launched at the festival – couplings are the two Mendelssohn Quintets.

The Seligenstadt performance of the E flat Bruch Quintet was a little different, as Altino was a stronger violist than Sawa. The work is unusual in that the two violins are muted in the opening Andante con moto. The following Allegro shows off the violas quite nicely; but the heart of the work is the lovely third movement, another Andante con moto – it came off very well in the public concert. Yet another section with the same tempo marking leads off the finale, which is an effective end to a very enjoyable piece. The Henschel recital ended under floodlights with an impressive, well sustained account of Beethoven’s A minor, Opus 132 (pace the printed programme, which announced Opus 130!), notwithstanding the passing drones of at least two aeroplanes and two helicopters.

The Paizo Quartet performances on 2 July were understandably not quite on the same level. Beethoven’s Opus 18/Number 6 was alert enough in the rhythmic sections but did not really take off, as I have heard it do in the hands of the Smetana Quartet. The finale with its alternating slow and fast sections brought the most concentrated playing. Mozart’s D major Quintet, K593, with Markus Henschel as second viola, was pleasantly done, the bee’s two interventions apart, but the best of the evening came after the interval, with an excellent Schubert Death and the Maiden in the lit courtyard.

On 3 July the Henschels played a splendid movement from Manfred Trojahn’s Lettera amorosa – they plan to record all his quartets – and the Paizo gave us the Andantino from Shostakovich’s Fourth. With the Henschel’s taking the leading parts, the ensembles then combined for a hugely enjoyable performance of Reinhold Glière’s Octet, a youthful tribute to Borodin which seems to be getting more popular, as it well deserves to do. After the interval, the Paizo players took the lead in a floodlit Mendelssohn Octet, the ideal festival-closing piece – the finale was encored.

Seligenstadt (the name means ‘blessed town’) is a lovely location for such an event, even when the weather is as boiling hot as it was in the early days of July. Not having received the attentions of the wartime Allied bombers, the town has many of its old buildings and is beautifully kept. I found my visit very worthwhile, as the musical standard was high and it was easy to find excellent food.

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