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Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
String Quartet No.3, Op.46 (1943) [12:33]
Hansa KRÁSA (1899-1944)
Theme and Variations for String Quartet (1935-36) [9:40]
Erwin SCHULHOFF (1894-1942)
Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) [14:09]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
String Quartet No.2, Op.7 ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ (1925) [29:17]
Bennewitz Quartet
Pavel Rehberger (percussion: Haas)
rec. 2018, Martínek Studio, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4265-2 [66:01]

The Bennewitz Quartet has constructed a valuable programme here that includes inter-war and, in the case of the Ullmann Quartet, wartime pieces reflective of developments of Czech music of the time. It inspires yet again the now commonplace and melancholy thought as to the directions that Bohemian and Moravian music might have taken had these and other composers survived. It’s most acutely the case that the followers and pupils of Alois Hába and Janáček were cut down; Ullmann was a pupil of the former, Haas the latter.

Ullmann’s Third Quartet is a particularly fine one and has been recorded a number of times before. Composed in Terezín in 1943, it’s flowing and broad but with little anxious cells to unsettle the mellifluous writing, with its heart lying in the Largo. But rhythmic vitality is also a strong inheritance and there are different ways of conveying these disparate elements. The Bennewitz are tonally resplendent, drawing on the work’s impressionistic lineage; the Schulhoff Quartet on VMS are warm though tonally spikier whilst the Kocian on Praga break the opening movement’s liquidity and are more horizontal than either of the other quartets. The Bannewitz are notably fast in the dark threnodies of the slow movement; their uncompromising speed has a slightly eerie quality, far more sublimated than the competition. Here the Kocian’s bleached, tragic, almost consort-like aura is desperately moving. I shouldn’t forget the Dover Quartet on Cedille who also emphasise the work’s impressionism and are eloquent advocates. It’s a testament to this work that it can bear such differing perspectives, balances, speeds and tonal registers.

Krása’s Theme and Variations of 1935-36 has an alluring theme and six variations and is festooned with cheering qualities such as guitar-like pizzicato accompaniment and an occasionally cheesy first violin line. Sonic effects are consistently diverting and this work, rare on disc, receives a knowing and glowing reading. Schulhoff’s 1923 Five Pieces for String Quartet has almost reached the status of a repertory piece with its sophisticated awareness of contemporary vogues in dance music. I tend to prefer the Schulhoff Quartet on VMS, though the Aviv on Naxos are good too. The Schulhoff bring a more nuanced wit to the movements and stress its tough modernism the most successfully whereas the Bennewitz drives through the folkloric contrasts in the Alla Czeca, conforming to their taste for speed and limiting too many structural irregularities. That said, otherwise I liked almost everything in this new performance, notably the Iberian hints and the slinky rhythms of the Tarantella finale.

Most people who know it will have first heard Pavel Haas’s String Quartet No.2 ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ via the recording of the eponymous Pavel Haas Quartet on Supraphon back in 2006. Differences? Once more the Bennewitz is faster by some distance, and phrases more vertically (hence generates less colour than the Pavel Haas). Both ensembles play the beautiful slow movement with requisite warmth, albeit the newcomer, as ever, feels the pulse more briskly. The Janáček-like vivace finale sees a strong divergence, the Haas group bringing greater opulence in the upper strings but taking the music more slowly and heavily. The stormy visions in the Bennewitz reading bring lashings of rhythmic vivacity and also those wild percussion entries from Pavel Rehberger.

I might prefer other performances here and there and not everything is uniformly successful. But these well-recorded readings, like the booklet notes, are full of spirit and breathless excitement, as well as not a little instrumental finesse, of course.

Jonathan Woolf

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