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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
String Quartet No. 2 SZ. 67 (1917) [25:33]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 11 in F minor Opus 95 “Serioso” (1810) [19:58]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
String Quartet in G minor Opus 10 (1893) [25:06]
Benyounes Quartet
rec. 2018, Music Room, Champs Hill, UK

The Benyounes Quartet – Zara Benyounes and Emily Holland (violins), Sara Roberts (viola), and Kim Vaughan (cello), was formed at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music back in 2007. Since that time the Quartet has gained an enviable reputation for its performances, and not only of standard repertoire. It has also championed a number of contemporary works, by established and emerging composers alike.

Their debut recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos with pianist Jeremy Young received great acclaim at its release, and they also featured on Mendelssohn’s Complete Works for String Quartet – a four-CD issue on the Champs Hill label, involving a number of other leading ensembles.

However, to mark ten years of performing together, the Benyounes Quartet was inspired to record its own new CD, featuring three defining works in the repertoire, and with which the players also felt a particularly strong connection. With this in mind, they have identified these quartets as innovative and experimental at the time, as well as, on a personal level, reflecting the journey and challenges the players have taken and overcome to date – in fact, ‘part of the quartet’s DNA’, as they so nicely put it.

The three works chosen for this new enterprise – entitled ‘Innovators’ – are Bartók’s Second Quartet, Beethoven’s Op 95 in F minor, and Debussy’s relatively early Quartet in G minor. On the rear cover of the CD booklet, is to be found an interesting and meaningful quotation from Béla Bartók, where he extols the praises of Beethoven and Debussy – as well as a passing reference to Bach – for each man’s great service and contribution to music and musicians. The quotation itself comes from Serge Moreux’s book on the Hungarian composer (1953). In the same book, mention is also made that, in an interview given earlier in 1939, Bartók named Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy as the three masters from whom he had learned most.

In terms of choosing which piece by each composer to include, Debussy presents no problem, as he only wrote the one quartet. The CD’s remaining 45 minutes or so would then need to accommodate a work by Bartók, and one by Beethoven. Bartók wrote six quartets, where each one, or a pair together, reflects the composer’s development over the years. To this end, the Second Quartet would seem to be the best option, given that it comes from a period during which a purer, more individual kind of romanticism fuses with elements of Magyar folk style. This then takes up about the same time in performance as Debussy’s Quartet, with twenty or so minutes left for Beethoven’s contribution.

The F minor Quartet Op 95 is the shortest of all Beethoven’s Quartets, not because the composer has less to say, but because he says it so much more concisely, and is a fascinating work really much more akin to his late quartets than to those of his middle period. It is already in this Quartet that one can feel deafness is causing Beethoven to turn in on himself, since the outside world ceases to interest him to any degree. As such, then, this work is the ideal bedmate for the other two quartets selected. As to the actual running order, I suspect there would have been some serious prior discussions, whether the works were to be part of a concert programme or a new recording. The Beethoven has by far the most arresting opening all of three works, as well as the most exciting conclusion. The Bartók, by comparison has the calmest start, and a somewhat understated ending, while the Debussy sits closer to the Beethoven from these parameters. Starting with the Hungarian quartet works well, especially given what its composer felt about Beethoven and Debussy respectively. The Beethoven certainly breathes fire and passion into the mid-point of the CD, with the Debussy rounding everything off most effectively. Of course, this is all conjecture really, and it could simply have been alphabetical – and, in any case, the CD listener has the ultimate choice.

I have to say that, of the three composers on this disc, Bartók would be the one I would leave behind at the airport, were I to be jetting off to record a Desert Islands Discs programme at some tropical sleepy-lagoon location. But as soon as I began to listen to the Second Quartet’s opening ‘Moderato’ I was smitten. This was such powerful playing, in total empathy with the composer’s idiosyncratic style at the time of writing, and where the ensemble wasn’t simply taut, but absolutely as one. I now wanted more, and while the ensuing ‘Allegro molto, capriccioso’ inhabits a completely different world, with its pounding ostinatos, aggressive rhythms, and exotic harmonies, I was once more captivated by the playing from the first to last note. By now I felt well up for the finale, marked ‘Lento’ despite the fact that, whereas the ‘Allegro’ in the hands of the Benyounes Quartet was dynamic and extrovert, the finale is highly introspective in the bleakness of its opening, which almost conjures up the desolation of a lunar landscape.

After the final ethereal bars of the Bartók, the terse opening of Beethoven’s Op 95 cut through the air like a knife, and the players again responded to Beethoven’s ‘Allegro con brio’ marking as one – ‘con brio’ can mean anything from ‘with vigour, spirit, liveliness or energy’ – and it seemed that leader Zara Benyounes had instilled all these definitions into her co-performers. The slow movement (‘Allegretto ma non troppo’) is refined, yet somewhat more impersonal, cast in the seemingly-serene and remote key of D major, From the start there is a propensity for fugal writing and chromatic lines, both of which subsequently evolve into a fugue proper in the middle section, latterly with some faster-moving counterpoint, before returning to the calm of the opening. Almost sensed instinctively from the players, the listener knows that, while the movement is all set to cadence conventionally in the key of D, Beethoven has something else in mind, when it comes to rest on a diminished-seventh chord, and launches straight into the Scherzo, now back in the quartet’s home-key. The slow movement probably highlighted one of the finest attributes of the performances on the CD: despite still being a relatively young ensemble, the Benyounes Quartet has that wisdom and ability which is usually only seen in far-more well-seasoned outfits, to see this work from the inside out, from Beethoven’s perspective, empathising with every note and affording each its due importance in the overall scheme of things. When a string quartet has this gift, this is what can ultimately turn a good outfit into a great one – something I feel this CD confirms on each subsequent listening.

The Scherzo (‘Allegro assai vivace ma serioso’) is despatched with great aplomb, where the shared articulation of the movement’s dotted-rhythm germ-motif is highly impressive throughout. The players certainly convey the ‘serious’ nature of Beethoven’s writing, but also with an element of good humour – even if this might be of the composer’s own unique brand. They then have the exact measure of the ultimately-lilting finale (‘Larghetto espressivo’ leading to ‘Allegretto agitato’). But when the tonic major key takes over for the last fifty seconds or so, and Beethoven cranks the tempo up to a two-in-a-bar ‘Allegro’ in the coda, the players burst into action once more as if turbocharged, to round off this terse, yet pithy Beethoven Quartet in the highest of spirits.

If the Bartók had been about rhythm, exotic melody and textures, the Beethoven a model of organic development and conciseness, then Debussy’s glorious early Quartet embraces most of this, and more. However, it further adds lush textures, colours, sonorities, and romantic expression into the mix. From the germ motif that opens the first movement (‘Animé et trčs décidé ), the ensuing Scherzo (‘Assez vif et bien rhythmé’), the yearningly-evocative slow movement (‘Andantino doucement expressif’, and the finale (‘Trčs modéré’), which aims to bring together all that has gone before, the Benyounes’s performance is masterful, and totally engaging throughout.

With a perfectly-focussed and well-balanced studio recording that nonetheless captures the enthusiasm and spontaneity of live performance, this is indeed a first-rate CD of the highest order, and which certainly lives up to its title, ‘Innovators’. Factor in Robert Philip’s informative booklet, with its not-overly academic analysis of the works – the attractive packaging and presentation – and it becomes virtually a must-have, whatever your standpoint, or area of interest.

This outstanding new CD from the Benyounes Quartet might have taken some ten years to mature, but the result is both vintage, yet at the same time tantalisingly fresh on the palate.

Philip R Buttall



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