The Benyounes Quartet Shine Light on Unfamiliar Music by Women Composers

Janáček, Kaprálova, Tailleferre and Ravel: Benyounes Quartet [Zara Benyounes & Emily Holland (violins), Tetsumi Nagata (viola), Kim Vaughan (cello)] King’s Place, London, 22.9.2014 (CS)

Leoš Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata)
Vitezslava Kaprálová: String Quartet Op.8
Germaine Tailleferre: String Quartet (1919)
Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F


Last Saturday evening, in the intimate Hall Two at King’s Place, the young string players of the Benyounes Quartet gave a precise, assured performance of two 20th-century masterpieces – Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata) and Ravel’s String Quartet in F – which framed less familiar repertory from the same period by Vitezslava Kaprálová and Germaine Tailleferre.

The Beynounes Quartet was formed in 2007 at the Royal Northern College of Music and the members went on to win the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious Julius Isserlis Scholarship which saw them travel to Geneva to study with Professor Gabor Takacs-Nagy.  Following this they held the Richard Carne Junior Fellowship at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and are currently resident at the University of Bangor.  Now Park Lane Group Young Artists, the quartet has developed a broad repertory which embraces diverse genres and contexts, and which has seen them involved in several innovative collaborative and cross-arts projects; the quartet works regularly with Shobana Jeyasingh Dance and has collaborated with award-winning jazz group Empirical, performing in the London Jazz Festival at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and appearing on their album, Tabula Rasa.  They are currently participating in a project to promote ‘neglected works by women composers who were distinctive musical voices of their time’, curating a series of concerts in collaboration with Equator’s Women of the World Festival.

The Czech composer Vitezslava Kaprálová (1915-40) was in her early twenties when she composed her only string quartet, which was premiered by the Moravian Quartet in Brno on 5th October 1936.   A child prodigy, she had entered the Brno Conservatory at fifteen where she studied composition and conducting; she later studied with Vaclav Talich in Prague (1935-37), and with Bohuslav Martinů, Charles Munch, and Nadia Boulanger in Paris (1937-40).  The influence of her fellow Slavs, Martinů and Janáček, is evident in the string quartet’s dance rhythms and concise repeated motifs, and in its modal harmonies.  The Benyounes began the first movement, Con Brio, in arresting fashion, establishing a pulsing rhythmic drive which was sustained throughout the movement, as the asymmetries and off-beats were energetically articulated and emphasised.  A slower, more lyrical theme seemed to foreshadow the soaring contours of the Ravel Quartet to come later in the programme.  The counterpoint creates complex conversations and the Benyounes’ appreciation of the structures was impressive, especially as the material was fragmented and developed.  The Benyounes found a melancholy strain in the Lento which followed, Kim Vaughan’s opening cello melody singing musingly, complemented by some well-executed harmonics in the upper strings.  Kaprálová’s motivic material is diverse and ever-evolving; the players met the technical demands assuredly, double-stop and pizzicato gestures further enriching the unusual harmonies and modulations.  The final movement, Allegro con variazioni, had a folky bravura in the dance-like passages in which the voicings were constantly changing, and these vigorous sections contrasted with more reflective, elegant minor key episodes.   Kaprálová’s range of expression in this Quartet is wide and the Benyounes Quartet skilfully encompassed the varied registers and hues.

The concert opened with Janáček’s Quartet No.1, sub-titled the Kreutzer Sonata, but while the playing was technically accomplished I did not feel that the Benyounes quite had the measure of the breadth and depth of the composer’s idiosyncratic idiom.  On a structural level, the tempi felt somewhat rushed: the phrases and textures need more space than they were given, and the transitions between the alternating speech-melody motifs and ostinatos similarly require a sense of capaciousness.  The result was that, while individual episodes were delivered with precision and incisiveness, they did not quite hang together to form a convincing, extended narrative.  There were, however, some touching moments: the opening of the third movement offered a moving, plaintive dialogue between the first violin and cello, which made the frantic outburst sul ponticello imitation which follows, on the second violin and viola, even more striking, and the on-going alternations of these contrasting motifs built skilfully to a climax.   Similarly, the Benyounes established an elegiac air at the opening of the finale, before surprising us with the ferocity of the rapid episode which follows.  I am sure that as they develop their interpretation of this quartet, the Benyounes will dig deeper into the prevailing narrative element of Janáček’s enigmatic score.

After the interval we moved from Moravia to Paris.  It was while studying at the city’s Conservatoire that Germaine Tailleferre met the friends and fellow musicians who, along with Tailleferre herself, would come to be known as Les Six:  Louis Durey, Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, and Arthur Honegger.   From the opening bars of the first movement, Modéré, the Benyounes captured the freshness and spontaneity of Tailleferre’s score.  Vaughan passed her simple, folk-like four-bar melody to the second violin; Emily Holland’s graceful phrasing was succeeded by viola player Tetsumi Nagata’s pianissimo rendition, before Zara Benyounes picked up the thread which blossomed into a forceful, confident re-statement of this opening motif.  Such lucidity of textures and relaxed dialogue characterised the whole movement, which in many aspects resembles Ravel’s Quartet, particularly in its harmonic colours and pensive, at times quite dark, mood.  The first movement segued into the Intermède, in which the high-lying, muted upper three voices were gently supported by carefully placed cello pizzicati, creating a light, quasi-magical delicacy.  As the movement unfolded, the oscillating quavers in (predominantly) the middle voices, rolled easily onwards with fleetness and evenness.  Dynamics were restrained, the concluding diminuendo fading gently to two restful pizzicato chords.  The rhythmic irregularities of the finale, Vif, broke the quiet charm, the driving motor rhythms pushing relentlessly forwards.  A slower interlude, over a cello drone, introduced fresh textures, the first violin’s melody arching in steady crotchets above shimmering string-crossings in the second violin and viola.  After a return of the bracing rhythmic arguments, the finely graded diminuendo of the close was impressive, a high pizzicato from the cello offering the last, light-spirited word.  Tailleferre’s Quartet is delicate and brief, lasting barely ten minutes, but in the hands of the Benyounes it was utterly enchanting.

Ravel was 28 years old when he wrote his only string quartet in 1903.   Although influenced by Debussy’s G Minor Quartet which had been published 10 years earlier, Ravel’s Quartet is less impressionistic and more neo-classical in form and idiom.  This was a very balanced account by the Benyounes Quartet, one which emphasised Ravel’s classical lucidity, restraint and eloquence.

The melodious themes of the Allegro moderato were expressively shaped and projected, and the kaleidoscopic colours vibrantly delineated.  The asymmetrical pizzicati of the second movement, Assez vif, had a wonderful sense of propulsion and energy; the syncopated cross-rhythms of alternating and simultaneous 6/8 and 3/4 measures, together with unexpected accents and playful trills, created an air of exuberance.  The Benyounes’ attention to detail was notable: tremolos glistened and the sudden dynamics changes were meticulously observed.  The viola and cello melody brought a leisurely mood to the Trio and the organic acceleration to re-establish the Scherzo was subtly controlled.  The Très lent was dreamily sumptuous, the low probing cello motif countered by whispers in the upper strings.  The concluding Vif et agité was optimistic assertive, the sound full and rich; the movement built to an exciting and vigorous close.

The Benyounes Quartet deserved the warm appreciation shown by the small audience; this was a disciplined and technically accomplished performance of interesting repertory to which the players obviously feel a strong commitment.  Future concerts will see them continue their evangelising for rarely heard female voices, and offer opportunities to hear music by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69), Henriette Bosmans (1895-1952), Verdina Shlonsky (1905-90) and Rosy Wertheim (1888-1949).  Visit for further details.

Claire Seymour

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