Prom Chamber Music 3: 6th August 2001

String Quartet in F, Op.96 (American)
String Quartet No.6

Henschel Quartet

Christoph & Markus Henschel – violins
Monika Henschel Schwind – viola
Matthias Beyer-Karlshoj – cello

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 6 August, 2001
Venue: Lecture Theatre, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Lecture Theatre in the V & A is an excellent venue for chamber music. It resembles an abbreviated Wigmore Hall, with a steep rake of seats instead of stalls and balcony; pictures of the great and good from the Renaissance and antiquity decorate the walls.

Museums are multi-media too, these days. One does not just go to a concert – an exhibit is on display too – a photograph of Saks, New York, from an album of shop interiors published in 1934. A reminder then of the world that Bartok was about to enter (his sixth quartet dates from immediately before his emigration) and the society Dvorak visited before writing his twelfth quartet. Both the setting and exhibit reminded that these quartets, now so firmly part of a hallowed tradition, were themselves once contemporary and innovative.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Dvorak wrote only one string quartet, or that the other thirteen have been lost. The ’American’ must be performed more than all the others put together, even if here it was a reasonable counterweight for the “difficult” Bartok.

The Henschels are rising stars of the quartet scene – twin brothers, their sister, and the grandson of their teacher. They are notable, perhaps, for freshness and directness of interpretation rather than profundity or sense of structure. They play with precision and commitment, but transitions or changes of mood bring noticeable changes of gear.

The opening of the Dvorak set the tone. Henschel Schwind’s powerful and passionate viola melody, and the strength of the bass, outweighed the too light violins. The first movement had many fine moments – energetic dance rhythms, the yearning passage before the development, and a suitably rustic, grainy-toned conclusion. But neither it nor the second movement – taken at a brisk, un-Lento tempo, with moments of over-shrill violin vibrato – were wholly successful. The remainder was very fine, however, especially the harmonics and musette-like effects in the trio, and the pizzicato bass and dance-like sprung rhythms in the finale. The contrast between the deliberate, consciously beautiful chorale-passage towards the end, and the energy and earthiness of the dance tunes, was particularly effective.

The Bartok also begins with a viola theme, ardently and sensitively delivered; the Henschels’ impeccable ensemble and discipline was shown to excellent advantage. Although they’ve made their name with Schubert, Bartok received a fine outing, even though the continuity of so concentrated a work was unfortunately lost through a broken viola string.

In the first movement, Bartok’s trademark lyrical bagpipe passages, the accelerating intensity at the end of the development, and the waltz-like ending stood out. The second movement received just alternation between lyrical and severe, and in both it and the burleske movement that followed, the Henschels brought out the folk influence – a close cousin of Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs; the extended pizzicato passages, and perfect poise, were particular successes. The slow last movement is thought of as Bartok’s farewell to Hungary. It was sensitively performed, the final viola solo, with pizzicato second violin accompaniment, brought the concert to a hushed and reverential conclusion.

The Henschels have some way to go, I feel, before they truly have an individual, distinctive style. They are well on their way; their playing gives great pleasure.

  • BBC Radio 3 re-broadcast Sunday, 12 August, at 1 o’clock

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