Bennewitz Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Schulhoff & Schubert

Five Pieces for String Quartet
String Quartet in G, D887

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

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 24 November, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Bennewitz Quartet. Photograph: Pieces for String Quartet by Prague-born Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) are collectively an intriguing proposition, part Les Six and part Second Viennese School. They chart a largely attractive suite of dances, whose rhythms the Bennewitz Quartet were eager to explore in this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert at Wigmore Hall. There was a particularly sultry ‘Tango’ and a rustic ‘Valse viennese’ that operates on an unusual platform of triple-time rhythm within a meter of four, which led to deliberately awkward interaction between the players, but in this enjoyably coarse performance there remained a rustic nature to the music. Even more effective was ‘Alla Serenata’, which began with a bluesy solo from Štěpán Ježek but ended with ghostly muted figures from all four instruments, sending a cold shiver down the spine that was nowhere near as cosy as the light laughter from the audience implied. The final piece, ‘Tarantella’, was a hive of activity that featured terrific playing.

In his G major String Quartet Schubert made pronounced technical advances in his writing for stringed instruments. The Bennewitz Quartet harnessed the power of these moments but were careful not to overdo them, instead focussing on some of the vulnerable lyricism carried by the first two movements. This was particularly evident in the opening pages of the Allegro, which retained its tension right up to the more songful second theme. The scherzo fluttered attractively, with a few slight and tasteful Slavic inflections from the Czech musicians, perhaps recognising a few pointers towards Dvořák, while the warm hearted trio looked even further forward, towards the Mahler of the Fourth Symphony. It was in these slower cantabile moments where the Bennewitz players excelled and the bittersweet Andante featured some lovely phrasing from Štěpán Doležal before a powerful central section. There was commendable urgency throughout the finale, flitting between major and minor and unable to choose – until a firm hand on the tiller pushed us towards the former, the Bennewitz musicians capping this fine interpretation with two emphatic, swept chords.

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