Henschel Quartet – Schulhoff, Bruch & Schubert

String Quartet No.1
String Quintet No.1 in E flat [First public performance]
String Quartet in G, D887

Henschel Quartet [Christoph Henschel & Markus Henschel (violins), Monika Henschel-Schwind (viola) & Mathias Beyer-Karlshøj (cello)]

Kazuki Sawa (viola)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 July, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Henschel QuartetThe Henschel Quartet returned to Wigmore Hall for a wide-ranging programme spanning almost a century and can fairly be said to have run the gamut of musical Romanticism.

Admittedly the First Quartet (1924) of Erwin Schulhoff does cross the boundary into Expressionism: from the period in which are concentrated most of this composer’s best works, it reflects without imitating Hindemith – in its propulsive and rhythmically trenchant first and third movements – while suggesting Bartók in its capricious second movement or ominous introspection of its finale. A superb piece which, as with its successor and the equally fine String Sextet, is gradually making its way in the repertoire – thanks to such finely attuned performances as that which the Henschel gave here.

Hard to credit that the next piece was written less than a decade before, but even a late work by Max Bruch is unlikely to push the aesthetic envelope and this first public airing (actually billed as a world premiere) of his First String Quintet (1918) revealed a work that looked back fondly to the ethos of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Hardly surprising when one remembers the ageing composer all but considered himself the relic of a bygone age: what was unexpected was its expressive vibrancy, radiating experience without indulging in mere nostalgia.

Although nominally in four movements, the opening Andante is more an extended introduction to the lively and equally compact Allegro that follows. A further Andante proves the emotional heart of the work – allying its generous flow of polyphony to a harmonic subtlety that at times recalls ‘American’-period Dvořák – and which is linked, via an anticipatory slow introduction, to a finale which touches on previous themes (and also earlier works by Bruch) on its way to a vividly affirmative conclusion.

As with the Second Quintet and Octet that followed, this piece was long known about but – unlike its successors – inaccessible through the surviving copy being in a private collection. Thanks in part to the redoubtable Bruch scholar Christopher Fifield, it has now been published and also recorded by these artists prior to this performance (hence ‘first public performance’). This welcome act of rehabilitation and the persuasiveness of this rendering, made for an appealing work that may yet have a future.

The modest dimensions of these works were put in context by Schubert’s last and greatest string quartet. Keeping its expansive proportions in perspective is never easy: the Henschel chose to omit the first movement’s exposition repeat, emphasising the thematic contrasts and harmonic richness in this most radical of extended sonata designs from Schubert’s last years. The Andante found a workable accommodation between its plaintive main theme and the powerfully rhetorical episodes that waylay its progress, while the scherzo unfolded with appropriate emphasis on its teasing rhythmic interplay – the trio lacking nothing in easeful warmth. In its oddly discursive manner, the finale can seem an anti-climax, but the Henschel once again found the balance between its obsessive formal backtracking and underlying buoyancy that sees it through to a decisive close.

Throughout the performance, passing intonational flaws were as little compared to the cohesiveness of ensemble and the assurance with which the musicians projected this most orchestrally-conceived of chamber works. An all-round success for the Henschel Quartet.

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