Bennewitz Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Haydn, Schnittke & Dvořák

String Quartet in E flat, Op.33/2 (Joke)
String Quartet No.3
String Quartet in G, Op.106

Bennewitz Quartet [Jiří Němeček & Štěpán Ježek (violins), Jiří Pinkas (viola) & Štěpán Doležal (cello)]

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: 4 February, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

I looked forward to my first encounter with this prize-winning young Czech quartet, but having heard these obviously highly talented players, I feel baffled. They played with such calculation that almost everything emerged with maximum precision and minimum spontaneity. The ultimate impression was as cold as the icy weather outside.My only technical criticism is that leader Jiří Němeček slithered so quickly over his semiquavers in the Allegro moderato of Haydn’s ‘Joke’ that many of them did not really sound. But it was such a mannered performance that such a detail hardly mattered. Even the second violinist’s holding back on the beat seemed to have been worked out in advance.

Then there was the question of playing senza vibrato, which raised its head throughout the evening. With gut strings and period bows, this effect – and it is an effect, because we know that even in Geminiani’s time, some vibrato was used – can be bracing. Used with bows and instruments in a modern set-up, at modern pitch, listening to four inert left-hands can be deadening. The opening of Haydn’s Largo, where the viola has the melody, was cold and uninteresting at the tempo chosen. In the scherzo, too long a pause was made before the Trio. Good marks to the ensemble for using an authentic edition, but the leader’s scoops in the trio should have been exhilarating, not grafted on for effect. His dummy entry during the jokey ending to the finale raised a laugh from some of the audience, but one felt it was something he did every time.

Alfred Schnittke’s Third Quartet (1983), like so much of his output, is both referential and self-referential. It begins with snatches of Lassus, Beethoven and Shostakovich which are cleverly interwoven throughout, but one inevitably catches half-echoes of other things. Yet in a good performance it comes across as all-of-a-piece, very much Schnittke’s own creation. The Bennewitz players seemed to have been persuaded that as Lassus was the first tag to be heard, they were again invited to play without vibrato. They used so much of this device in their performance that it became wearing, and imparted an expressionist feeling to music that is quite straightforward. When a little vibration was used, for instance by the second violinist in the DSCH quotation, it stood out in unnatural relief. Schnittke’s glissandos had an icy precision that was unnerving in the wrong way. One had to have grudging admiration for such a painstaking application of a meticulous game-plan, but it did not make for absorbing listening. One was left on the outside.

The second half of the concert was filled by Dvořák’s great G major String Quartet, once again played with such calculation – every speeding-up or slowing-down measured out with coffee-spoons – that a work which should send out of the hall walking on air projected a deadly chill down the spine. The nostalgic Adagio was carefully played but dismayingly cool. Again too big a gap was left before each trio section of the scherzo. I enjoyed parts of the finale even if calculation was the order of the day.

I must say something about the non-use of vibrato (again) in this work. We have quite a few recordings by the ensemble who gave the first performance, the Bohemian Quartet; and although its members did not record the G major, they did the ‘American’ twice , alongside other Dvořák pieces. While it is true that they did not use much vibrato, they played with such warmth and abandon that one hardly notices the somewhat ‘straight’ sound when listening to their records. The Bennewitz players should take note – and perhaps also listen to the wonderful 1933 HMV recording of the G major by the Prague Quartet.

The tenth piece from the Dvořák’s Cypresses cycle was offered as an encore. It seemed a strange choice and left me feeling no warmer. I hope the Bennewitz Quartet will work through this phase of over-preparation and emerge with the ability to perform more spontaneously. Incidentally the quartet is named after the violinist and teacher Antonín Bennewitz (1833-1926), who was third in the line of great Prague quartet leaders after Pixis and Mildner and taught three members of the Bohemian Quartet. I wonder what he would make of the ensemble that now bears his name.

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