It must be every concert manager’s nightmare: with tickets for the 17th February already sold for the Calefax Reed Quintet, they cancel. But rarely can an audience have been rewarded with a substitution of such quality. The Bennewitz Quartet is world-renowned, and gave a concert that had some seasoned audience members saying it was the best concert ever.
Mozart, Dvorak, and Smetana; all three from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although the cultural gap between 18th century Vienna and 19th century Bohemia is huge.
Mozart’s ‘The Hunt’ is a work of the Age of Enlightenment. The Bennewitz chose to bring out the dramatic features of the piece: the contrasting loud and soft passages, the changes of mood. This was fine: those contrasts are there in the piece and their interpretation never went beyond what Mozart wrote. My only reservation is that their full-blooded approach lost the exquisite elegance that is also there in the writing. But there is room for different interpretations; theirs was committed, totally convincing and I loved it.
The Dvorak was a selection from ‘Cypresses’, originally written for voice and piano and rewritten for string quartet much later in his life. For me this was when the concert moved on to a different plane. They played the six short pieces, five of them full of longing and regret, one cheekily cheerful, with a flowing ease, with the nostalgic passion of a man looking back on a love affair now past, which he was. Stepan Jezek, the second violinist, who spoke wonderfully before each piece, commented that they loved these pieces partly because Dvorak treats each instrument as an equal, and weaves the four parts into an ever changing whole. You can’t say that about some of his quartets; thank goodness he waited 22 years before reworking these pieces.
I would say more about the Dvorak if it were not for the impact that the Smetana Quartet ‘From My Life’ had on me. I know it well, I’ve played it several times with friends, I’ve always liked it but thought it was on the edge of being ‘over the top’. The Bennewitz played it with such intensity that I saw how wrong I have been. It’s a tremendous work, and their passion was equal to it. My school music teacher used to say to us, his orchestra, “I want blood on the floor”, to try to get us to put some expression into our playing. The Bennewitz put blood on the floor in bucket loads, without for a moment over-egging it. It was a great performance of a great piece.
One of the many interesting things we learnt from Stepan Jezek was that the cellist of the great Smetana Quartet, whose life had been dedicated to promoting Czech music, had recently died. He went on to say why, for them, it is Smetana, rather than Dvorak, who is the epitome of Czech composition; that it is Smetana who sought to write music in new ways that would penetrate deeper into the Czech soul.
Can music really be nationalistic in this way? Certainly composers can use folk tunes and folk dance rhythms in their music but isn’t that merely a means to an end, the end being to write music that speaks to human beings regardless of national feeling? Benjamin Britten was inspired by Indonesian gamelan music but it doesn’t mean he was writing Indonesian nationalist music. I puzzled over this all the way home and came to this conclusion. Every composer writes in a way that is conditioned by his background. Elgar sounds ‘English’ and Debussy ‘French’ without either of them being nationalistic (I’m thinking of the cello concerto not Pomp and Circumstance). But Dvorak and Smetana were writing as Bohemians at a time when their country did not exist as a nation state. We know about the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 but they didn’t. Their desire to stress their national identity was as strong as the feelings of a Scot listening to the bagpipes, and who would want to disparage that? For both those composers their nationalism mattered deeply and it added depth to their music.
Andrew Fraser Polmear