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Mendelssohn, Bruch: String Quintets / Henschel Quartet

Release Date: 12/25/2009 
Label:  Neos   Catalog #: 30901  
Composer:  Max BruchFelix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Kazuki SawaRoland Glassl
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

Remarkable … snap this up immediately.

This outstanding release from the Henschel Quartet marks their recording debut for the Neos Classics label. A fascinating Max Bruch world première is further cause for celebration.

I have followed the career of the Henschel closely since reviewing their recording of Mendelssohn’s ‘Complete string quartets’ for Sony/BMG on Arte Nova Classics 82876 64009 2. For MusicWeb International I compared the Henschel’s recording with what I considered to be the finest alternative sets: Emerson/Deutsche Grammophon; Talich/Calliope; Aurora/Naxos; Bartholdy/Arts Music Red Line
Read more and the Pacifica/Cedille. Not only were the Henschel my premier recommendation, I felt their performances were such a remarkable artistic achievement that I confidently acclaimed the set as my 2005 ‘Record of the Year'.

The same year they followed up their Mendelssohn with a quite outstanding recording of Beethoven’s Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18/6 ‘ Lobkowitz’ and Quartet in E flat major, Op. 127. Deserving of the highest praise the recording can compete with the finest versions around (Sony/BMG on Arte Nova Classics 82876 63996 20).

I thought the Munich-based quartet exceptional when I first heard them in recital at Richmond in 2005. Since then they have developed an even rounder tone. Scrupulous preparation, indubitable professionalism and broad experience are qualities that have provided an even greater assurance to their interpretations. See the Henschels website: The Strad in April 2007 carried an article on them.

On 1 July 2009 the Henschel celebrated their anniversary of 15 years with the same line-up playing recitals at their three day annual musical festival at the old monastery at Seligenstadt, near Frankfurt. Having attended several of their recitals I have witnessed their rapid ascent into the exclusive top rank of ensembles on the world stage. They follow in the footsteps of the great Amadeus, LaSalle, Melos, Italiano and Alban Berg quartets - all standard-bearers from a previous golden generation. Chamber music lovers are fortunate to have performers of the foremost quality of the Henschel and Emerson on the scene today.

Lynchpin of the quartet Christoph Henschel is undoubtedly one of the finest first violins around today. Playing his 1721 ‘Cobbett’ Stradivarius he leads with impeccable tuning and a magnificent silvery timbre. Second violinist Markus Henschel plays a 1725 Stradivarius and Monika Henschel-Schwind a rich-toned Gasparo da Salò viola from 1565-1600. Cellist Mathias Beyer-Karlshøj has chosen to use a fifty year old Hjorth cello. All four instruments have modern set-ups with contemporary strings and bows.

A testimony to their assiduousness and sheer hard work this release is a veritable delight. Alongside the Mendelssohn quintets we have a world première recording of Bruch’s String Quintet in E-flat major. For the Bruch they are seamlessly augmented on second viola by the services of Japanese string player Kazuki Sawa. For the Mendelssohn works German violist Roland Glassl works with the Henschel. Outstanding is the unanimity of ensemble and immaculate intonation. Devoid of any hint of ostentation there is a natural feel to their phrasing together with an insightful grasp of structure. As I have come to expect their careful use of vibrato and choice of tempi feels just right. I played this hybrid SACD on my standard players and was delighted by the clarity of sound and the excellent balance. Interesting and informative booklet notes add to this splendidly presented disc.

The increasing popularity of the music of Max Bruch is sweeping away the myth that he is a one-work composer known only for his famous G minor Violin Concerto. At the several Recorded Music Societies that I attend Bruch is one of the most frequently chosen composers by the members. In addition to Bruch’s best known scores there are a number of lesser known gems that deserve general discovery namely the: Double Concerto for two pianos; Op.88a; Double concerto for clarinet and viola, Op.88 (also version for violin and viola); Romance for viola and orchestra, Op.85; Swedish Dances, Op.63; Suite after Russian Folk Songs, Op. 79b and the Serenade on Swedish Folk Melodies (1915). Bruch was also very active in the field of chamber music with scores ranging from the Eight pieces for clarinet, viola and piano, Op.83; two String Quartets, Op. 9/10; a Septet for wind and strings (1849) to a String Octet (1920). There is also a large amount of sacred and secular choral works, and many songs in his substantial output much of which is rarely heard.

In a manner similar to that of Brahms the eighty year old Bruch undertook a flurry of chamber music activity in the last couple of years of his life spent in retirement in Berlin. After the horrors of the First World War in this Indian-summer of creativity Bruch began writing his String Quintet in E-flat major in 1918; the String Quintet in A minor in 1918/9 and a String Octet in the early months of 1920. Many will be familiar with the 1997/8 Baden-Baden recording of the String Quintet in A minor and Octet performed by the Ensemble Ulf Hoelscher on CPO 999 451-2 (c/w Bruch Piano Quintet). Bruch’s biographer Christopher Fifield has stated that the manuscripts of the trio of unpublished chamber scores and other works were assigned by the composer’s three surviving children to the care of publisher Rudolf Eichmann. Along with several other scores they vanished and were thought destroyed or missing in the Second World War. Fortunately Bruch’s daughter-in-law Gertrude Bruch had prepared hand written copies of all three scores. Fortuitously her copies of the String Quintet in A minor and String Octet turned up in the BBC Music Library, London.

The whereabouts of Bruch’s E flat major String Quintet was not known for many years and thought lost. Then in the 1980s Gertrude Bruch’s hand-written copy emerged in private hands and was subsequently bought at a Sotheby’s auction by the German music publisher Henle in July 2006. Thankfully all three scores are now available in published editions. In July 2008 the Henschel together with second violist Kazuki Sawa were entrusted with what was claimed to be the world première performance of the Bruch E flat major Quintet at the Wigmore Hall, London.  

In the opening movement of the Bruch marked Andante con moto the five string voices just melt gloriously together. I felt suffused by music evocative of golden sheaves of corn awaiting harvest gently swaying in a warm breeze. Truly this is playing that I didn’t want to end. The relaxing atmosphere of the opening movement immediately vanishes in the amenable Allegro a movement that the Henschel and Sawa propel forward unstintingly with abundant exuberance. What a marvellous surprise it was to hear the comforting music of the Andante con moto for the first time. With playing of this elevated standard I am inspired to write in the manner of the poet W.B. Yeats that ones soul feels at ease and ones heart has found peace. This Andante is surely one of Bruch’s most glorious offerings. In the varying mood-swings of the final Andante con moto – Allegro ma non troppo vivace the music radiates the joy and rapture of heady summer days. At 1:18-2:12 Bruch lets loose with energetic writing of passionate fervour. Again at 3:34-4:17 the high-stepping music returns with dynamic zest and vitality. With considerable confidence the Henschel and Sawa close the score with a sense of bold carousing.

Whereas Bruch’s score came at the end of his life, Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 1 in A major was a product of his youth composed in the spring of 1826. Following the death of violinist Eduard Reitz in 1832, Mendelssohn wrote a replacement movement, an Intermezzo to serve as a memorial to his friend and teacher. Cast in four movements the score was published in 1833 as his op. 18.  

The extended opening movement of the String Quintet No. 1 marked Allegro con moto is confidently rendered enfolded in brooding tenderness. Mendelssohn’s often flamboyant writing for the first violin is evident. For a sad lament the tempi of the Intermezzo - Andante sostenuto feels just right. This is not a movement where Mendelssohn wears his heart on his sleeve. Contrapuntal in design with fugato passages, the bright and good-humoured yet restless Scherzo - Allegro di molto is interpreted with considerable energy whilst maintaining a crucial degree of delicacy. At points 1:56-2:41 and 2:54-3:30 Mendelssohn seems to hint at the amusement of a Scottish reel. Aggressive ‘jabs’ from the cello at 2:41-2:54 make a considerable impression. In the brisk and extrovert finale Allegro vivace I love the way the forthright players ensure that the music just cascades along.

Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 87 dates from 1845 - a late work composed at Bad Soden during a time of illness. The four movement score had to wait until 1851 for its posthumous publication.

The opening Allegro vivace inhabits a rather agitated sound-world over a prevailing sense of urgency. One notices how Mendelssohn again gives the first violin part considerable attention. Cheerful and lyrical the marvellously written Andante scherzando is light on its feet. Here one can imagine novice dancers swirling around on an over-waxed dance floor. Beautiful if containing somewhat dark melodies the dense textures of the splendid Adagio e lento are remarkably portrayed. With writing of a temperamental and unpredictable feel Mendelssohn ensures that the listener never seems to know what is coming next. Hyperactive and rather inhospitable the final movement Allegro molto vivace is vigorously played here, conveying heightened tension.

There are surprisingly few recordings of Mendelssohn’s Quintets. Of those that I have heard the version from Hausmusik London has been the most satisfying. The double set was recorded using period instruments at York University in 1989 and East Woodhay, Berkshire in 1993 on Virgin Veritas 7243 5618092 5 (c/w Mendelssohn String Quartet No.2 and Octet). Another version of some note is from the Fine Arts Quartet with guest violist Danielo Rossi who recorded them together with the original third movement Minuetto from the String Quintet No. 1. The Fine Arts recording was produced in 2007 at Steinfurt, Germany on Naxos 8.570448.  

This release is a remarkable artistic achievement for the augmented Henschels that should be snapped up immediately.

-- Michael Cookson, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Quintet for Strings in A minor by Max Bruch
Performer:  Kazuki Sawa (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919; Germany 
Quintet for Strings no 1 in A major, Op. 18 by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Roland Glassl (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1826/1832; Germany 
Quintet for Strings no 2 in B flat major, Op. 87 by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  Roland Glassl (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Henschel String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1845; Germany 

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