Czech string quartets tend to bring something individual and memorably special to the Coffee Concerts. Quite often they will create a listeners’ Damascus moment concerning one of their compatriot composers. Two years ago The Bennewitz had the audience flocking like rock fans out to the foyer to buy up their entire stock of Smetana Quartets CDs after hearing an arresting performance of No 1 ‘From my Life’.
This time, direct from a home-city concert the evening before this performance, aircraft luggage restrictions meant their formidably assembled 2007 CD of Janáček’s quartets and Bartok’s 4th had to stay in Prague. Otherwise there might have been a similar result.
I was among those who learned from Jiří Pinkas’ verbal introductions that until now I had been listening to Janáček’s instrumental music in the wrong way. This Coffee Concert audience is eager to learn and is already equipped each time with Chris Darwin’s ‘origins of the pieces’ programme notes. Pinkas praised these and added a vital lesson about Janáček’s heightened interest in human psychology. In his maturity Janáček’s musical voice, Pinkas said, was about conveying the speech of others, and human stories about situations, often difficult and stressful.
Listening to the delivery of words spoken, their tone, intensity and shape within the music, I and probably many of more than 200 others present suddenly had Janáček brought alive for me. In this prurient age, we like to think we understand this composer all the better because we know he wrote 730 obsessive letters to a married woman 39 years younger than he. Now we heard Janáček the playwright in sound, as though in a theatre in which we the overhear interchanges, quarrels and soothings of all kinds between the characters.
The rasping ‘Kreutzer’ Violin Sonata of Beethoven inspired a Leo Tolstoy novella in which a wife’s private rehearsal of it with a male violinist friend costs them her life at her jealous husband’s hands. Dramatic meat and drink to Janáček, the acclaimed creator of operas about human crises. Except instead this came out as his own String Quartet based on the tale.
Ostentatious quartet ensembles can be guilty of playing this 20th Century music melodramatically to the point of listening discomfort, exhaustion and recoil. Not the way of his fellow countrymen the Bennewitz: here was control, taste, insight and dramatic shape seen long-term, not just short. It wasn’t trying to be a firework display of instrumental effects and explosive emotions. It wasn’t trying to be an opera in disguise. This painfully intimate Bennewitz account would handsomely fit a radio feature programme on the subject.
That was one of three Christmas gifts The Bennewitz brought to us. Opening the morning came an offering intended also for amateur and semi-professional string quartets. Another of their compatriots is Dussek − to we non-Slovaks a piano man possibly unjustly overshadowed by more famous, slightly later composers whose music aspects of his own anticipated. He also wrote agreeable String Quartets and playing from copies of Dussek’s own published parts of his Eb Quartet, which are in reduced size, tightly crammed and tricky to read off a music stand without bionic spectacles, The Bennewitz allowed Dussek to open this concert in the kind of relaxed, inventive and invigorating way Haydn (a Dussek admirer, Darwin tells us) does habitually for other ensembles.
Pinkas has made these parts available to Chris Darwin (himself a quartet first fiddler), who is preparing a working edition which quartets down the road can start playing, hopefully by next Christmas.
Prersented first, if the Dussek, was The Bennewitz’s gold, and the Janáček their frankincense, then Schubert’s admired masterpiece Death and the Maiden quartet was in more ways than one the myrrh.
Janáček being Moravian, Schubert’s father was too, and was the cello player in the family string quartet for whom violist Schubert first composed. During the impassioned cello part the head-banded Štěpán Doležal was relishing in two of the familiar slow movement variations, the thought struck me that Schubert’s father may well have played this part after surviving his son, and felt the anger inside it.
The Bennewitz gave us a veritable gale of an opening movement – not a wild storm: again . . . that control, that seeing beyond the superficial, that maturity beyond their years we sense among Czech quartets. Their Variations were a true sleepwalk towards ultimate resignation. Their Scherzo resolutely razed the ghost and their final Tarantella, a dance of life as well as death, took on a genuine fire. There were moments in it when their playing stung like a concerted assault of wasps.
The ovation brought the audience something in return from the Bennewitz Christmas tree. Small , but rich and filling; a chorale summarising the season; Bach’s ‘Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light’. Think of a musical parting yuletide gift as perfect!
Jakub Fišer (say it ‘Fisher’) has taken over from as leader since their last appearance here and the transition seems seamless since Jiří Němeček’s domestic move to Switzerland. Fišer is on their recording last year of Dvořăk Nos 10 and 13. One of the spectator joys was Pinkas’ interaction with Fišer and his leading of Štěpán Ježek and Doležal when Fišer was going it alone. This is another compelling ensemble whose return will be keenly anticipated here.