Monika Henschel-Schwind interviewed by Michael Cookson

Monika Henschel-Schwind: Violist of the Henschel Quartet talks to  Michael Cookson (MC)The members of the Henschel Quartet  comprise three siblings (violinists Christoph and Markus Henschel and their sister Monika Henschel-Schwind on viola) together with cellist Mathias Beyer-Karlshoj.
It has been an amazing last twelve months for the Henschel. They played for His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on his name day at the Vatican’s Sala Clementina a version for string quartet and mezzo soprano of Haydn’s The Last Seven Words of Christ on the Cross. For that Papal performance the Henschel were appearing with mezzo soprano Susanne Kelling. Additionally in 2010 the Henschel gave a performance at the Royal Spanish Court in Madrid of Mozart and Schubert on the Court’s precious Stradivarius string collection.
I asked viola player Monika Henschel-Schwind about their forthcoming release of Manfred Trojahn’s music for string quartet on the Neos label. (review.)
MC: This will be the first disc of contemporary music by the Henschel Quartet. What does it feel like?
MH-S: Honestly speaking, we were very tense about how our first contemporary release would be received. We have completely fallen in love with Manfred Trojahn’s music and – as you know – we have always been so selective with the contemporary repertoire…so this puts even more pressure on this first release.
MC: What was the quartet’s impression on first seeing and studying the Trojahn scores?
H-S: Our first reaction when we heard his music performed by the excellent Auryn Quartet was to be impressed – and very moved. Immediately we fell in love with Manfred’s way of writing music. Then, when seeing his fine handwriting in the score for the first time, it showed us what we had heard before: a sensitive composer who is a master of creating moods, a master of building up the architecture of a piece, a composer who writes for the nature of instrument and not against.
MC: Tell me what the music was like to perform in the studio?
MH-S: Performing in the studio always really gives us a hard time. We consider the CD to be a momentary photograph – it shows an interpretation which we find right at that very moment. At the same time we wish to leave something of longer lasting value, so we take recordings very serious when preparing. As soon as we actually start playing in the studio everything is forgotten and we are driven by the music. Luckily we have a great recording team which we can trust. And once in a while we go and listen to what we have just recorded. But we will not listen to everything immediately in the studio; we would simply run out of time… Also we always make a couple of ‘whole takes’ so the architecture of how we build up the movement is obvious.
MC: Can you tell me the more unusual or non-conventional playing techniques that you used and on which particular tracks they were used?
MH-S: As regards playing techniques Manfred does not use anything unknown by Bartók and other composers of that time. And he still creates a contemporary masterwork (We agree!). I mentioned the nature of the instrument before. Very many of the unconventional techniques used by contemporary composers go against the nature of the instrument – not all do, but many. Manfred is not afraid of letting the instrument start to get into harmonic vibration.
MC: The composer and the quartet certainly achieve some remarkable sounds. In the final piece number six ‘und nicht wohin ich gehe‘ of Fragments for Antigone how are those loud and unremitting cello beats made?
MH-S: Yes. In the last movement of Antigone our cellist Mathias hits the string very near the bridge with his right thumb. You see in rehearsal with Manfred, he and Mathias had been looking for the right sound and when Mathias suggested this technique Manfred said that this is exactly what he was looking for.
MC: It must be helpful to be able to discuss matters of performance with the composer.
MH-S: Manfred wants every player to act freely and interpret in a personal way, so he puts as little in the score as possible – just as much as is necessary. This is his principle.
MC: Can you hear any influences in the scores such Berg, Webern or Ligeti or anyone else in any of the scores?
MH-S: In the Quartet No.4 Manfred gives direct quotes of a Wolfgang Rihm Trio: Erste fremde Szene, Zweite fremde Szene. Wolfgang Rihm and Manfred are friends and each very much respects the other’s way of writing…
In the Scherzo of Quartet No.4 we find a strong Mendelssohn influence. When we first asked Manfred to compose a quartet for us we had spoken about giving it a Mendelssohn link, because Mendelssohn is so central to us. He did not really agree then that he wanted to use any link at all, but in the end he did and he did a great job. Who else would have been able to write a contemporary Sommernachtstraum (Midsummer Night’s Dream) movement?…  In the last movement one could probably speak of some memories of the attitudes of Beethoven and Schubert at some places.
MC: With regard to the Song to Insomnia III which is actually movement No. 6 from Lettera amorosa, the quartet doesn’t play in all of the seven movements of Lettera amorosa.
MH-S: No. Not all of the movements of Lettera Amorosa involve the string quartet, but most do and we played them of course when we premièred the piece at the reopening of the Anna-Amalia-Library in Weimar. The work is for 2 soprano voices, 2 violins and string quartet. We shall look forward to recording the whole piece some time.
MC: Did you find any of the scores more satisfying to play than the others?
MH-S: It is hard to say which piece we found the most satisfying. We love them all. Maybe in a way String Quartet No.4 is the closest to us, since we were the first to perform it and had the chance to ‘grow up’ with it developing. Manfred wrote it for us and of course he knows our ensemble very well. We could not have found a better matching piece for our Quartet than his String Quartet No.4.
Michael Cookson