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Mozart, Erwin Schulhoff and Schubert: Henschel String Quartet, Hoylake Chamber Concert Society, Westbourne Hall, West Kirby, Wirral, 21.01.2011 (MC)

Mozart: String Quartet in B-flat major K.458, ‘The Hunt’ (1784)

Erwin Schulhoff: String Quartet No.1 (1924)

Schubert: String Quartet in D minor, D.810 ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824)

Henschel String Quartet:

Christoph Henschel (violin)

Peter Clemente (violin)

Monika Henschel-Schwind (viola)

Mathias Beyer-Karlshøj (cello)

This recital by the Munich based Henschel String Quartet was one of those rare concerts that I didn’t want to end. Adding to the appeal was a cleverly devised programme of familiar and unfamiliar music with contrasting styles, spanning a hundred and forty years.

It has been a rewarding experience following the burgeoning career of the Henschel Quartet unquestionably one of the most distinguished on the scene today. Consisting of three siblings and their long-time friend many quartets would have been left reeling from having to make a late replacement for regular second violinist Markus Henschel. Stepping into the breach so capably was Peter Clemente of the Clemente Trio from Munich. After such a setback one can only guess at the amount of preparation that was required by the quartet to perform at such an elevated level.

The opening work of the evening, Mozart’s popular String Quartet, K.458 known as ‘The Hunt’ was played with the craft and assurance that I have come to expect from this ensemble. Outstanding was the welcoming charm they wrapped around the Menuetto and the rapt intensity injected in the ebullient closing movement Allegro assai.

One of many victims of the Nazi holocaust the Prague born composer Erwin Schulhoff was killed at the Wülzburg concentration camp, in Bavaria. Virtually forgotten Schulhoff is a major twentieth century composer who is beginning to get the recognition that he deserves. The Henschel, who are doing sterling work championing Schulhoff’s music, elected to play Schulhoff’s String Quartet No.1 from 1924. Undoubtedly presenting some challenges for the general listener the rewards of this remarkable work are well worth the extra degree of concentration. Holding the attention with an iron grip the second movement Allegretto con moto was as much a visual experience as well as a listening indulgence. I was struck by the myriad of fascinating often ethereal technical effects together with contrasting melodies ranging from the glorious to the grotesque. Vitally rhythmic, Slovak folk rhythms infuse the third movement Allegro giocoso alla slovacca played with supreme confidence by the Henschel who savour every note. 

A much loved staple of the chamber music repertoire, Schuberts String Quartet in D minor, D.810 Death and the Maiden’, closed the recital. By 1824 Schubert had become aware that he was seriously ill and the spectre of death seems to hang over the score. In the opening movement the Henschel displayed the essential elements of strength and defiant high drama. With the Andante a theme and set of variations based on Schuberts song Death and the Maiden’ the players shroud the gentle beauty of the writing with a liberal covering of melancholy. Swirling like a dance of death the short Scherzo contained torment and menace. Unremitting in its driving rhythms and energy the Henschel bring the Rondo, Finale to its electrifying and exhausting conclusion. To have played an encore would have served only to break the spell.

Noticeable throughout was the astonishing unity of the Henschel that allows broad dramatic contrasts replete with fine detail. Showing remarkable conviction and supplying intensity and ardour in rafts Christoph Henschel is one of the most exceptional quartet leaders around.

Michael Cookson

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