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Schulhoff, Sibelius, Janacek: String Quartets / Henschel Quartet

Schulhoff / Sibelius / Janacek / Henschel Quartett
Release Date: 08/28/2012 
Label:  Neos   Catalog #: 111006  
Composer:  Erwin SchulhoffJean SibeliusLeos Janácek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHULHOFF String Quartet No. 1. Duo for Violin and Cello . Five Pieces for String Quartet Vogler Qrt PHIL.HARMONIE 06016 (47: 53)

SCHULHOFF String Quartet No. 1. SIBELIUS String Quartet in d Read more class="ARIAL12">, “Voces intimae.” JANÁ?EK String Quartet No. 1 , “Kreutzer Sonata” Henschel Qrt NEOS 11006 (SACD: 65:23)

The First Quartet (1924) is Erwin Schulhoff’s most often recorded work: A 78-rpm set is listed in WERM I, and James A. Altena names nine more on page 503 of Fanfare 34:3. I have seen and/or heard of quite a few others. The Henschel Quartet adopts slightly more expansive tempos than the Vogler for all four movements, which allows them to dig deeper into the music, savoring the composer’s rich, complex harmonies. Their Neos disc also delivers superior recorded sound, even on the CD level, offering warm yet intimate string tones not heard from the Vogler’s drier acoustic. The Henschel’s opening Presto con fuoco is no longer merely a race to the finish. Yet the Vogler finds greater mystery in the “ghostly” (Altena) e con malinconia grotesca section of the Allegretto con moto second movement. The Henschel has more bounce and life in the scherzo, emphasizing Schulhoff’s foreshadowing of Shostakovich—who was only 18 at the time. The final Andante molto sostenuto is the heart and soul of this music, the movement that has drawn so many to it. For these six minutes, Schulhoff is the master that all his other music suggests he might become. For all of the Henschel’s beautiful playing and recorded sound, it is the Vogler that carries me aloft and leaves me with the feeling that I have experienced a small miracle. I would not be without either of these performances, and I could never choose between them.

Frank Reinecke, the Vogler’s second violinist, and its cellist Stephan Forke deliver a stunning reading of Schulhoff’s 1925 Duo , their playing filled with energy and executed with panache. These three works were all recorded in a Berlin studio on consecutive days in July 2011, but the Duo is far better served than the quartet. Both instruments are captured close up, yet with plenty of air around them.

The Five Pieces , written a year before the first quartet, are exemplars of the slick, clever writing which, although immensely enjoyable on the spot, leave a slightly sour aftertaste and prevent Schulhoff from being considered a serious composer. The Vogler has fun with them, as does this listener. And yet—Schulhoff being Schulhoff—there are a few gripping moments here, in movements titled Alla tanga milonga and Alla tarantella . But I almost wish they were on a different disc from the first quartet and the duo—or written under a pseudonym—because Schulhoff’s serious chamber music does deserve comparison with the acknowledged masters. If Shostakovich can get away with all his comic, film, and political hack work, why can’t Schulhoff?

There is no mystery in the Henschel’s performance of Sibelius’s “Voces intimae.” These players know exactly what they want to say and present it in a clean, straightforward manner, with intense yet elegant playing. The supposedly dark, mysterious work comes to life, now sounding more like Sibelius than it has in previous recordings, and a closer cousin of the composer’s symphonies. Has something been lost here? Hidden depths? A tentative groping, perhaps, shared between the performers and the listener? That’s up to you to decide. I like it both ways (see Fanfare 35:1).

I am less enthusiastic about the Henschel’s Janá?ek. Right from the opening phrases, there are moments that are not intense enough for this passionate music; a sense of caution prevails, and I get a feeling of routine, of too many bar lines showing. Nevertheless, this Neos disc earns high marks for its Schulhoff and Sibelius. The sound of the SACD layer is very similar to that on CD; comparisons make one aware of a slightly metallic character (these are presumably steel strings, after all) which SACD reduces but does not eliminate. Multichannel listening thrusts one inside the quartet, which glamorizes the sound but confuses the music.

One continues to marvel at the quality of string quartet playing on disc these days. There are dozens of ensembles that can match the few great quartets of, say, the mid 20th century, not only in technical aplomb but in depth of understanding (perhaps excepting the Busch’s Beethoven). The Vogler and the Henschel are among them. Can one locate them within the string quartet continuum? No; there is such a variety of approach, not to mention repertoire, that the listener must simply rejoice in them all.

FANFARE: James H. North
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 1 by Erwin Schulhoff
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1924; Prague, Czech Republ 
Quartet for Strings in D minor, Op. 56 "Voces intimae" by Jean Sibelius
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1909; Finland 
Quartet for Strings no 1 "Kreutzer Sonata" by Leos Janácek
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923; Brno, Czech Republic 

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