Bennewitz Quartet @ Libby Gardner Concert Hall 04.17

Posted April 25, 2013 in

The Bennewitz Quartet exuded a boyish flair to the music they played. Photo: Pavel Ovsík

The Bennewitz Quartet have been together since 1998 when they met at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and are named after the Czech violinist Antonin Bennewitz. The concert started with Ravel’s “Quartet in F Major.” Ravel’s string quartet premiered in 1904 in Paris, and was initially not very well received. This caused him to lose his place in the Conservatoire, but rather than kill his career, this piece (his only string quartet) propelled him forward. Debussy, an inspiration of his, wrote to him, saying, “In the name of the Gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” Apparently the criticism stems from the lack of classical structure and simplicity throughout, but it is this deviation that gives the quartet an engaging flow.  

The piece felt consistently boyish throughout. This set the tone for the performance: This is the first time I haven’t seen a female performer this season, and the four of them played together with a familiarity that translated as brotherly. With the synchronicity consistent throughout the performance, it added a level of awareness to the pieces that the audience absorbed deeply so that by the end of the night, the performers were given an enthusiastic standing ovation, leading them to play an encore from a Beethoven string quartet. 
The first movement, “Allegro moderato- Trés doux,” felt pretty blissful, airy and light, which is what established that young and boyish tone; although another theme was established shortly after with feelings of peril. It conjured images in my head of a boy walking through a forest, when he suddenly notices that there are tons of gross bugs around, as the timbre matched the sliminess of slugs paired with the light buzzing sound of a mosquito. Then, “Assez vif-Trés rythmé” started off with a melody and plucking that was insanely ethereal. Jiří Němeček and Štěpán Ježek, both on violin, maintained a floating-in-the-clouds-like undertone, with such deep plucking that seemed almost as if it exposed the shape and the hollowness of the instruments. In the next two movements, I was thrilled to see Jiří Pinkas on the viola and Štěpán Doležal on the cello adopting harp-like techniques that contributed strongly to the ethereality. “Trés lent” acts as a foil to the first movement with darker, scolding tones, while “Vif et agité” was delivered with exciting intensity as the piece ended. 
The next piece by Bohuslav Martinů, “Quartet No. 3,” contrasted with the boyishness of the first performance with an intense, war-like structure. Martinů’s life is loaded with phases of rebellion, including hiding and fleeing to avoid military service. As a teacher, he was known to emphasize to his students that “the textbooks have all the correct answers and they cannot reproduce a measure of living music.”  
“Allegro” began coolly and quietly, with a marching beat that evolved into a sort of tribal, hellish mood, with intensity building up. As the program notes commented on the rebellion of Martinu throughout his life, it was interesting to see what such a rebel wrote, being performed by what felt like a pretty formulaic and technical quartet. While the players did not lack sincerity or spirit, it seemed as though the marching quality was a product of the performers, and not necessarily of the piece. “Andante” had a thick dissonance that reveled in its heaviness, and felt like a prolonged wailing. Concluding with “Allegro Vivo” felt the most strategic, and felt like a group of bee soldiers preparing for war as the buzzing sounds of the violin flew through anxious, yet determined, paths of notes. 
The evening concluded with Robert Schumann’s “Quartet in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3.” The three quartets of this opus were written for his friend Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, and premiered as a present for his wife Clara Schumman’s birthday in 1842. While the first movement didn’t quite captivate me, the second movement was titled so aptly with the way it was performed (or maybe my Italian is improving). “Assai agitato; Un poco adagio; Tempo risoluto,” translates as “Very agitated; A little slowly; Determined time.” The tone felt excited at first, but a confused and unsure sort of excited, until it eventually took and ended on a serious and noble, deterministic and resolute direction.  “Adagio molto” felt slow and empty, as if you had been walking around for a long time with no particular place to go, yet the “Finale” ties the piece together with that same resoluteness found in the third movement, with a boldness and bravery to end the evening with an epic finish. 
It’s been fascinating to see throughout the season the variety and soul found in a simple combination of four string players. Because of its simplicity, these variations and evolution of what’s written and praised are remarkable. By seeing the players perform live, I have found loads of depth that I had previously been unaware of in a string quartet. As the Chamber Music Society nears its 50-year-mark, it is impressive that it is still run completely by volunteers and donors who share a passion for bringing world renowned artists to Salt Lake City. Looking forward to next season!
The Bennewitz Quartet exuded a boyish flair to the music they played. Photo: Pavel Ovsík The Bennewitz Quartet are named after Czech violinist Antonin Bennewitz. Photo: Kevin v. Ton