The young Bennewitz Quartet displays great beauty and strength

CanadaCanada Schumann, Janáček, Dvořák: Bennewitz Quartet (Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek [violins], Jiří Pinkas [viola], Štěpán Doležal [cello]), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 13.10.2019. (GN)

Bennewitz Quartet © Kamil Ghais

Schumann – String Quartet in F major Op.41 No.2

Janáček – String Quartet No.2 ‘Intimate Letters’

Dvořák – String Quartet in F major, Op.96 ‘American’

Vancouver’s Friends of Chamber Music has long sponsored Czech string quartets: the legendary Smetana and Talich Quartets appeared in earlier days, and the venerable Pražák Quartet has now visited for three decades. Of the younger ensembles, the celebrated Pavel Haas Quartet makes its fourth visit later this season, while the Zemlinsky Quartet appeared with the Pražák last year. Which leaves the Bennewitz Quartet, who were making their debut here. The group, which was formed in 1998, has won two important string quartet competitions: the Osaka in 2005 and Prémio Paolo Borciani in 2008.

The Bennewitz Quartet exhibits all the trademark rhythmic address and strong accents of the Czech tradition of string playing, but distinguishes itself as considerably warmer and more fulsome than many of its predecessors. They produce a most beautiful sound: each instrumentalist has his own distinct timbre and forms part of a strong corporate blend. Another defining characteristic is their natural sense of rhythmic flow; the patience in articulation takes one back to the Stamitz Quartet. Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 received a striking reading, wedding luxuriant textures with a strong expressive flow to produce something quite different from the astringent treatments one often hears. Schumann’s Quartet No.2 had fine motion and architecture, while the ever-popular Dvořák ‘American’ Quartet completed the programme with Czech writing at its most engaging.

Both of Leoš Janáček’s string quartets were written in 1923, and they masterfully explore the conjunction of deep melancholy with more demonstrative expressions of inner turmoil. One notable technical characteristic is the extensive use of ponticelli (bowing across the bridge) to convey either a mysterious foreboding or a visceral physical threat. Each quartet responds to a profound sense of loss. The second one, ‘Intimate Letters’, is the composer’s last work, an autobiographical disquisition on a consuming past love, and it’s impressive how forward-looking the construction is. In the hands of the original Janáček Quartet and, later, the Talich Quartet, the composition has both a striking sharpness of utterance and a special intimacy, where all the ponticelli interjections almost seem to summon voices from another world. The Bennewitz performance was different: following the work’s narrative closely, they employed unusually rich, flowing textures to suspend the listener almost cinematically in the varied contours of the composer’s emotional journey. The burnished weight of this performance recalled the post-romantic luxuriance and sensuality of Schoenberg and Zemlinsky around the turn of the century. The dialogue between the voices was generally subtle and rounded, rather than cuttingly etched, and the stabbing ponticelli stood out less.

The first two movements were taken at a deliberate pace, rich in colour but always inward looking. The early viola solo, beautifully presented by Jiří Pinkas, was more musing, as if in a deep reverie, while sharper dramatic contrasts were subsumed into to an undulating melancholic flow. The gentle, inexorable tread was strong in character and successfully held together. The apex was the Moderato, where all the feelings of (past) love poured out uncontrollably. Led by the strength of Jakub Fišer’s violin, this was almost overwhelming both in its heartfelt beauty and feeling and in the weight and amplitude of the group’s sound. It was the defining moment of the work. The closing Allegro largely maintained this concentration, finding a sense of regret no matter how demonstrative the assertion, being only slightly less at home in the quiet, pizzicato passages at the end. It’s an unconventional slant on the work, but one which had consistency and integration, was fully gripping in its emotional reach and honesty, and featured lovely playing.

After hearing the first of Schumann’s three Op.41 quartets so frequently, it was rewarding to start the concert with a performance of No.2. (He wrote all three quartets of Op.41 in a span of three weeks in June 1842.) This is a more tightly structured composition than No.1, and the Bennewitz Quartet endowed the opening Allegro with a finely-balanced architecture, a coaxing underlying lyrical flow and an estimable tonal blend. There was an appealing mix of sforzandi emphasis and gentle frolic, and the pianissimo passage just before the end was negotiated tellingly. The subsequent movements had well-chosen tempi and admirable appointment, but it sometimes seemed that the style was a little heavy for Schumann. The Scherzo had an earthy, bucolic weight slightly outsize for the composer, while the rhythmic drive and colour in the finale reminded me more of Dvořák than the finer-drawn lines of the work’s dedicatee, Mendelssohn. Still, this was a most enjoyable effort, with considerable freedom in the playing, just short of being fully idiomatic.

Dvořák’s ‘American’ Quartet has naturally been the go-to closing work for Czech ensembles, full of beguiling rustic energy and feeling. Performances are thick on the ground, ranging from the classic Janáček Quartet reading a half-century ago to the prize-winning modern account from the Pavel Haas Quartet. The Bennewitz featured distinguished playing but did not capture the work’s full character and charm. I found it an earnest, but slightly grounded, reading.

One thing evident from the Janáček is that the group loves strong romantic expression – but it was too much of a good thing in Dvořák. They pushed into the famous Lento with the most passionate expression possible but did not really make room to register the contemplative stillness of a dumka. The playing was commanding, but the tempo was just fractionally too fast to ‘seat’ the movement and generate repose: it seemed to get even faster in the urgent moments. The same tendency was present in the opening Allegro, where the second subject was given full romantic treatment, but what preceded and followed it was rhythmically rather straitlaced. Surely there is more delight, charm and frothiness in these sections too – but the first violin’s inflections did not capture all the romantic caprice. The same applies to the beginning of the Finale, where the leader did not find all the dancing joy and flexibility of line implied. The close of the work was energetic, but I would hesitate to call it uncontrolled elation. These are small critical points but, overall, they seemed to focus on the obvious dimensions of romantic feeling and rhythmic energy without finding all the imaginative depth in the work’s expression. Perhaps that’s what being a ‘young’ quartet means.

Following on the Pavel Haas Quartet’s lead in performing neglected works by Czech Holocaust composers, it was worthwhile to hear the enigmatic ‘Tango’ from Erwin Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet as an encore. The Bennewitz Quartet has shown a great commitment to these often-forgotten composers, and this piece was an extract from their just-released Supraphon recording of the string quartets of Ullmann, Krása, Schulhoff and Haas.

Geoffrey Newman

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