Twenty Years After
Leslie Jones joins a birthday party
The Henschel Quartet with Martino Tirimo, a recital given at St John’s Smith Square on Tuesday 11th November 2014 and broadcast live on Radio 3. Programme; Beethoven String Quartet no 5 in A major, op. 18, no 5: Dvořák, Quartet no 12 in F major, op 96, B, 179 (“American”): Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34
The Henschel Quartet are Christoph Henschel, Daniel Bell (violins), Monika Henschel (viola) and Mathias Beyer-Karlshøj (cello)
The Beethoven String Quartet in A major is an early work composed when Beethoven was only thirty. It was something of a surprising choice to open the 20th anniversary concert of this inimitable ensemble. Beethoven at this juncture had not yet discovered his distinctive voice and the composition is indebted to his mentors Haydn and Mozart, especially the latter. Indeed, several of Mozart’s ideas from his own Quartet in A major are incorporated here.
That said there is some satisfyingly intricate material for the lead violin, in this instance Christoph Henschel, especially in the first movement and some compelling exchanges between the violins, viola and cello (including a sort of hurdy-gurdy effect) as they alternately take up the main theme. The performers took full advantage of these opportunities to excel. Yet as Maestro Tirimo observed during the interval on Radio 3, the Henschels are nothing if not a serious, self-disciplined outfit – they are not interested in easily earned applause.
The overall mood of this short piece is upbeat but it becomes decidedly more introspective and pensive in the third movement. There are subtle anticipations here of the lacerating sadness of some of the master’s late chamber music, notably in the String Quartet in A minor, op.132 (“A convalescent’s sacred song of thanks to the Godhead, in the Lydian mode”). The playing throughout was faultless and despite the work’s disconcertingly abrupt end, the performance received warm applause from the attentive audience in this atmospheric venue.
The Henschels obviously took inordinate care to balance this programme. Given that the distinguished pianist Martino Tirimo had elected to perform the epic Brahms Quintet, with its echoes of Brahms’ Piano Concertos, the Henschels second offering, Dvořák’s Quartet in F minor, constituted a welcome contrast. It is a much calmer journey than Brahms’ intense and emotionally exhausting expedition. “It’s lighter”, as Monika Henschel tersely put it.
Indeed, Dvořák’s evergreen Quartet has in places a lilting quality somewhat reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s stirring Scottish Symphony. As in the New World Symphony, Native American, African American and Bohemian colours are vividly evoked, as Martin Handley pointed out in his informative Radio 3 commentary.
Several wistful themes grace this plangent work, completed while Dvořák was staying with the Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, in the summer of 1893. They bespeak his heartfelt nostalgia for his native land. For despite the ample opportunities in New York for such supposedly typical Czech activities as pigeon fancying, train spotting and boozing (the composer was Director of the National Conservatory of Music there from1892-1895) he remained homesick.
“I am satisfied, thank God”, Antonin Dvořák reportedly remarked, on finishing this work. We humbly concur. It has always been a personal favourite.
Concerning Martino Tirimo’s performance in the Brahms Piano Quintet, this versatile pianist who excels across the piano repertoire clearly has a remarkable rapport with the Henschels.
I conclude with a quote from Johannes Brahms himself, “If there is anyone else whom I have not insulted, I beg his [or her] pardon”.
LESLIE JONES is the Editor of QR