High Quality Recitals from the Henschel in England’s Lake District

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Haydn, Schulhoff, Beethoven, Theofanidis, Sibelius, Brahms: Henschel Quartet [Christoph Henschel (violin), Daniel Bell (violin), Monika Henschel-Schwind (viola), Mathias Beyer-Karlshøj (cello)], Lake District Summer Music 2013, Kendal Parish Church, Cumbria, 13.8.2013 & 17.8.2013. (MC)

Henschel Quartet, photo credit Georg Thum

Tuesday 13th August 2013

Haydn – String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3 ‘The Rider’
Schulhoff -Five Pieces for string quartet (1923)
Beethoven -String Quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 ‘Razumovsky’

Saturday 17th August 2013

Christopher Theofanidis -‘Visions and Miracles’ for string quartet
(European première)
Sibelius -String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56 ‘Voces Intimae’
Brahms -Sextet in G major, Op.36 [with Yuko Inoue (viola) and Ursula Smith (cello)]

I recall reading somewhere that the string quartet is the highest form of classical music and having attended recitals this year of both the Henschel Quartet at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester and the Emerson Quartet at the Hercules Hall, Munich I realise that this premise could be an accurate one. Certainly I have no hesitation in asserting that the Henschel and Emerson Quartets are at the peak of the elite group of string quartets on the international stage. Outside the major cities and international festivals it is certainly becoming increasingly difficult to attend string quartet recitals. So it was good to see the Henschel invited to the 2013 Lake District Summer Music the annual international festival held across several Cumbrian towns. In addition to giving master classes and summer school coaching the Henschel residence culminated in performing two recitals at Kendal Parish Church.

In front of a large audience the Henschel Tuesday evening recital commenced with Haydn’s Quartet in G minor, Op. 74/3 widely identified as ‘The Rider’. With its unusually wide design complete with five aisles acoustically this attractive Parish Church seems a large space to fill. It was clear from the opening bars that the Henschel had decided to reach all corners of the church providing a bold, hard driven interpretation that allowed considerable carry. Known as the ‘father of the string quartet’ Papa Haydn’s music is not fragile like porcelain and his large output has all the durability of Gillow furniture being able to stand up to the most robust treatment. I don’t think I have heard ‘The Rider’ played with as much potent energy and with leader Christoph Henschel in inspired form the result was quite compelling. I would love the Henschel to play Haydn quartets far more often and a recording is overdue.

The Henschel is doing its fair share of championing the music of the Prague born composer Erwin Schulhoff. Of Jewish origin and a holder of communist sympathies Schulhoff became a victim of the Nazi holocaust and was killed aged forty-eight at the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria. Already having recorded Schulhoff’s String Quartet No.1 (1924) on the Neos Classics label the Henschel presented the Five Pieces for string quartet a modern version of a Baroque dance suite. It’s five sections consist of an eccentric Viennese waltz, a rather preposterous Serenade, a sultry and steamy Tango Milonga, a spirited Czech folk dance evocative of Bartók and a hectic Tarantella. Although presenting some challenges for the general listener and possibly being heard by the majority of the audience for the first time, the score is well worth the additional degree of concentration. This remarkable and rewarding score which, with such virtuosic and expressive playing from the Henschel, held the attention with an iron grip.

After the interval in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major the Henschel demonstrated it had the full measure of the Church acoustic; a space nowhere near as forbidding as it may initially seem. From Beethoven’s middle period the C major score is the final of the set of three opus 59 ‘Razumovsky’ quartets commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky a Tsar’s ambassador at the Vienna Court and an accomplished amateur violinist. Overflowing with fresh and unconventional ideas these quartets expanded the full tonal range of the instruments. Although written over two hundred years ago the Henschel demonstrated the ability to make the impact of the sharp and abrupt contrasts with its audacious dramatic climaxes still feel startling today. Especially notable was the Andante played with a strong sense of introspection and the exciting rendition of the boisterous fugal Finale. In response to the fervent applause the audience was treated to the Finale of Dvořák’s much loved ‘American’ Quartet a movement that rarely fails to delight.

The Saturday morning Henschel recital took place against a backdrop of heavy Lake District rain which could be heard intermittently inside the church throughout the performance. Unpleasantly wet it may have been outside but the mood inside the Parish Church by stark contrast was an uplifting and stimulating one. The opening work was the European première of ‘Visions and Miracles’ by American composer Christopher Theofanidis – a work from 1997 that the Henschel played earlier this year at Carnegie Hall. Theofanidis’s generous use of dissonance in the three movement work was of the non-threatening type and did not prevent the music from being eminently accessible. With the unrelenting waves of sound built around pauses, especially in the euphoric opening movement ‘All joy wills eternity’ in parts I was reminded strongly of the music of fellow American composer Steve Reich. It was easy to sense how much the Henschel greatly enjoyed playing Theofanidis’s score that had it seems been inspired by the composer’s college years at Yale University.

Titled the ‘Voces Intimae’ (Intimate Voices) Sibelius’s D Minor Quartet cast in five movements is not a work that I get on well with as I find it weighty with a soupy density. The Finnish composer is not known for his chamber music and the ‘Voces Intimae’ is probably his best known composition in the genre. With a score that certainly feels orchestral in quality the Henschel, who recorded the score in 2008 on Neos Classics, gave a performance of elevated sincerity and unerring commitment that successfully conveyed the intensity of the writing.

My highlight of the morning’s programme was the performance of the Brahms Sextet in G major with the Henschel now led by Daniel Bell and joined by violist Yuko Inoue and cellist Ursula Smith. Brahms’s wrote a pair of delightfully melodic string sextets commencing with the B flat major score in 1860 with his G major offering coming some five years later was written at a time of emotionally significant events in the composer’s life. Given the superior quality of the music in both scores it is a travesty they are not played more often. It was easy to see how the impeccably prepared Henschel ensemble relished bringing out Brahms’s contrasting moods from the G major Sextet – essentially the grief for the death of his mother and the joy of his love affair with Agathe von Siebold. Perceptively the group conveyed a rather shadowy undercurrent of restrained melancholy, a feature only rarely revealed in performance. To my ear the Henschel seem especially suited to the music of Brahms – and as with Haydn, I relish the thought of a future Henschel recording of the string quartets.

Conspicuous throughout this stunning recital was the pristine intonation of the Henschel complete with an unyielding unity throughout the programme’s broad dramatic contrasts and onerous virtuosic demands. It’s rare to encounter performance quality such as this and if you get a future opportunity to hear the Henschel in recital take it immediately. For me the Lake District Summer Music has always been a joyous and rewarding annual event and it’s a shame that the richly rewarding content is not broadcast on radio to a larger audience.

Michael Cookson