The Bennewitz Quartet Plays “Entrarte Musik”

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ULLMANN: String Quartet No. 3. KRÁSA: Theme and Variations for String Quartet. SCHULHOFF: 5 Pieces for String Quartet. HAAS: String Quartet No. 2 / Bennewitz Quartet / Supraphon SU 4265-2

Once again we have a collection of music by Jewish composers who were sent to the concentration camps by the Nazis, and once again, although I applaud the music therein, I have serious reservations about this type of marketing ploy. It has become a “thing” for modern classical musicians to record a group of works by composers who were persecuted by the Nazis, and I for one am appalled by their insensitivity in this sort of promotion.

But the Bennewitz Quartet, a relatively young group of musicians which has been around since the early 2000s, is a fine group of musicians and the pieces they’ve selected for this recital are relatively rare ones for each composer—at least, I didn’t have any recordings in my collection of any of the four. We begin with Viktor Ullmann, one of the most famous and (nowadays) celebrated of those Jewish composers who died in Auschwitz and whose opera The Emperor of Atlantis was a parting shot across the bow of the Nazi regime. Ullmann’s music is among the most modern and, too my ears, the most strikingly original of any of those who died in the concentration camps, and this late string quartet is no exception. The first movement is surprisingly tonal for him, with a lovely theme developed well, but the music soon takes a darker turn, moving into some unusual harmonic territory, particularly as it moves into the second-movement “Presto” with its skittering string tremolos and serrated melodic line. I must applaud the engineers for recording the quartet so well: there’s just enough ambience around the strings to give them a nice sheen without swamping them in reverb. I was also struck by the fact that, although the quartet is in four distinct movements, Ullmann blends one into the next to produce a continuous flow. There are some pauses in the “Largo” movement as well as some slightly edgy rhythmic passages, but for the most part he continues his lyrical bent. It is only in the final movement, “Allegro vivace e ritmico,” that he becomes a bit edgier in tonality while still maintaining an excellent sense of structure.

Hans Krása’s Theme and Variations was written much earlier, in 1935-36, long before he was sent to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz. This, too, is a very lyrical work combining Czech, German and Jewish elements; the opening theme could almost be sung by a child, simple and attractive, and even when he moves into the variations he does not overdo the modern harmonies. I’m actually surprised that this work hasn’t become a staple of the string quartet repertoire; it could easily appeal to a broad audience. Although the music does become quite complex as we move through the variants, we always return to tonality and catchy melodic lines.

It is only with the 1923 Five Pieces for String Quartet by Erwin Schulhoff that we reach music that is more consistently modern in harmony, although this piece is not nearly as edgy as Schulhoff’s later work from the late 1920s onward. Nonetheless, even in the opening piece, “Alla Vales Viennese,” Schulhoff pulls the rug out from under our expectations, giving us a waltz with almost Stravinskian harmonies, and the following “Serenata” is also unusual and quirky. So, too, are his milonga and Tarantella, which sounds about as Italian as a glass of vodka.

Pavel Haas’ String Quartet No. 2 is very strangely subtitled “From the Monkey Mountains,” which (it turns out) was the local nickname for the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. It’s a very Czech-sounding piece, not too far from the contemporary music of Janačék. In the first movement, there also seemed to me to be a suggestion of American Indian music, some of which bears a resemblance to the music of that region.

If I have any complaint at all, it is that the Bennewitz Quartet tends to lean a bit too much in the direction of producing a lovely tone over getting into the dramatic heart of the music. Even in the Haas quartet, clearly the edgiest piece on this record, there’s just a little too much of sweetness and not enough vinegar in their interpretation. Nonetheless, this is an interesting mix of pieces, all of which are interesting.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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