REVIEW: Bennewitz Quartet – Coffee Concert, Brighton Corn Exchange, Sunday 17th February

TO hear a Czech ensemble play music from their own composers’ catalogue of chamber music is one of the treats of the Coffee Concerts. The chance comes not every season. There are fewer Czech ensembles on the circuit, of course: it’s a smaller country. But the repertoire based around Janacek, Smetana and Dvorak is so distinctive and stimulating.

When The Bennewitz Quartet concluded their appearance on Sunday with Smetana’s 1st String Quartet (From My Life), the audience were so affected and impressed they left the Corn Exchange and bought every copy on sale, in the hallway, of The Bennewitz’s CD including both Smetana quartets. Fellow countrymen understand each other better than would onlooking foreigners. The musical world outside Bohemia knows of Smetana’s eventual total deafness and its torment so crippling to a composer and yet so emphatically defied after the earlier example of Beethoven. Thus they can mistakenly see Smetana merely as a sufferer. And performances of his autobiographical 1st Quartet can lurch towards over-dramatised patronisation, despite the breadth and variety of the work’s life-journey portraying Smetana’s romantic passions of youthful artistic awareness, for the dance (a polka), and his first-love wife, before it concludes with the tinnitus-heralded final and complete loss of hearing.

This whole work emerged miraculously through that deafness but The Bennewitz valued what came before and the tone pictures Smetana painted jumped off the pages and out via their hearts through their instruments to the audience seated in the round. There was balance between the movements and the moods, there was integrity not excess, and Smetana was not shown as reminiscing on his past through embittered eyes but with a simple wounded regret.

And if Smetana inserted music in the first movement that suggested a warning of what was to come, he did so in hindsight and therefore artistic licence.

The lead violin of Jiri Nemecek had controlled attack in the vehement sections ahead but the Quartet was richly begun with the viola of Jiri Pinkas setting a tone and colour that led into an interpretation by The Bennewitz combining intensity with sympathy that was never less than riveting.

The Bennewitz, named after their compatriot violinist Antonin Bennewitz (1833-1926), included some Dvorak, selecting numbers 2, 3 6, 10, 11 and 12 from the dozen Cypresses for String Quartet. Cellist Stepan Dolezal’s frequent pizzicato and strumming suggested a fifth stringed instrument, a guitar or lute; appropriate accompaniment for these love laments Dvorak wrote about the girl he never won, but whose inspiration returned during the close of his Cello Concerto.

They are songs with the Czech words of nationalist poet Moravsky removed. But we all know music takes over where words die back in inadequacy.

Stepan Jezek, the second violinist spoke engagingly in introduction of each piece played and as the morning opened, told us how Mozart and Haydn played in the same quartet, how Haydn rated the younger Mozart the greatest composer he had encountered in all his long years; and how Mozart —racing away at this time into areas of sheer genius — knew he had to compose beyond his best if he was to dedicate worthily his latest six quartets to his great, revered senior Haydn, who had just fathered the String Quartet medium upon which Mozart was seizing.

How Mozart took that flower and multiplied its strength and beauty, in three others of the six we have already heard in the last two Coffee Concert series, and in ‘The Hunt’ Quartet, K458, which The Bennewitz now gave us. It launched a gloriously sunny winter morning which they subtly crowned, in just 17 perfect bars, by encoring with Bach’s Chorale, Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light, from the Christmas Oratorio.

The next, and concluding Coffee Concert comes on March 10 with The Modigliani Quartet in Beethoven’s late F major (Opus 135) and Ravel’s singular masterpiece in the same key.

Richard Amey