Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
String Quartet No.1 (1924) [16:35]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
String Quartet in D minor, Voces Intimae, Op. 56 (1908/09) [30:51]
Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.1, Kreutzer Sonata (1923) [17:56]
Henschel Quartet (Christoph Henschel (violin); Markus Henschel (violin); Monika Henschel (viola); Mathias Beyer-Karlshøj (cello))
rec. 15-17 December 2008, August Everding Saal, Grünwald, nr. Munich, Germany
NEOS CLASSICS SACD 11006 [65:23]

Following the success of a number of recordings made by the Munich-based Henschel Quartet any new release from them is cause for celebration. I made their Mendelssohn’s complete string quartets on Arte Nova/BMG my 2005 Recording of the Year. Their world première Neos CD of Bruch’s String Quintet coupled with Mendelssohn String Quintets was on my 2009 best of year list. Their Manfred Trojahn album was one of my best of year selections for 2011. Since making this recording the line-up has changed with second violin Markus Henschel leaving in 2010 to be replaced by Daniel Bell.
The Henschel are doing sterling work championing Schulhoff’s music.Prague-born Schulhoff was one of many victims of the Nazi holocaust killed at the Wülzburg concentration camp, in Bavaria. Virtually forgotten for many years he is beginning to receive the recognition that a major twentieth century composer deserves. I attended a marvellous Henschel performance of Schulhoff’s String Quartet No.1 at the Hoylake Chamber Concert Society, West Kirby in the Wirral as part of their 2011 UK tour. That evening they certainly made a compelling case for the score and I am delighted that they have recorded it.
Probably presenting some minor challenges for the general listener the rewards of the Schulhoff are well worth the extra degree of concentration. The Henschel’s playing of the second movement Allegretto con moto held the attention with an iron grip. I was struck by the myriad fascinating and often ethereal technical effects together with contrasting melodies ranging from the glorious to the grotesque. Vitally rhythmic, Slovak folk rhythms suffuse the third movement Allegro giocoso alla slovacca which is played with supreme confidence by players who savour every note. 

In the mid-1980s the Sibelius family donated a number of the great composer’s manuscripts to the Helsinki University Library including some relatively early works for string quartet. In spite of this Sibelius’s chamber music still centres around Voces Intimae quartet, Op. 56. Written in 1908/09 and cast in five movements it has a symphonic feel. Sibelius wrote the phrase ‘Voces intimae’ (Intimate voices) in the manuscript score above the slow third movement. I was especially impressed with the Henschel’s playing of the opening movement Andante - Allegro molto moderato which evinces a squally character with passages of uncertain calm. The heart of the work is the intense third movement Adagio di moto with the Henschel squeezing every last drop of emotion from this melancholic writing. Like a lurid dance a mood of restless agitation colours the Finale. Played at breakneck speed yet with splendid control the writing takes on a furious and reckless quality.
Janáček’s String Quartet No.1 was written very quickly in 1923. He was inspired to write the score by Tolstoy’s dark and disturbing 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata. In the opening Adagio - con moto which contains abrupt switching from unsettling agitation to a kind of phoney calm the Henschel play with depth and intelligence. The music of the third movement Con moto (Vivo. Andante) is heavily stamped with aggression and torment bordering on the brutal. The Finale just weeps tragic tears yet leaves faint glimpses of hope.
With this meticulously prepared programme the Henschel explore the darker often melancholy side of chamber music. I hope that for a future CD these talented performers will turn to more uplifting compositions such as quartets from Haydn and Mozart. The recording is clear if a touch close.
Michael Cookson

Dark and melancholy is explored through compelling playing of real distinction.