By Dennis D. Rooney
The Henschel Quartet is named for three of the group’s original members who, with cellist Mathias Beyer-Karlhøj, founded it in 1994. Two of the Henschel siblings remain, first violinist Christoph and violist Monika. Second violinist Catalin Desaga joined them in 2016.
Christoph Henschel plays a 1721 Stradivarius; Desaga’s violin is by Jan Bobak, a prominent Polish luthier; Monika Henschel plays a viola by the Brescian maker Gasparo da Salò (1542-1609); and Beyer-Karlhøj plays a cello by the celebrated Danish maker Emil Theodor Hjorth (1840-1920). More than 20 years of experience have given these players a fully integrated approach to performance that features estimable accuracy of ensemble and tonal blending.
The quartet appeared March 6 on the Flagler Museum music series in Palm Beach. In Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue (K. 546), a work from 1788 in which a fugue for two pianos from 1783 is wedded to a newly composed Adagio movement, the players produced an attractive sonority, somewhat darker in color than usual, which was pleasingly set off by the acoustics of the venue. Vibrato was sparely used and their performance stressed clarity and unanimity of approach over dramatic or heroic gestures.
Mozart’s Quartet in C (K. 465) bears the nickname “Dissonant” (or “Dissonance” in the U.K.) due to the tonal ambiguity of the 22-measure Adagio introduction to the first movement, which has a pulsing bass to add a note of further mystery, then gives way to a straightforward sonata-allegro movement that is mostly concerned with the first of its two themes. The first violin is, expressively, primus inter pares in the following Andante cantabile.
The succeeding Minuet and Trio shows the slow evolution toward the Beethovenian scherzo. Jocular rhythmic outbursts contrast with a sinuous dance tune in the Minuet. The Trio, in C minor, has a melody that only hints, yet unmistakably does so, at later C minor music: the scherzo of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet (Op. 74). As in the Adagio and Fugue, the players use of lighter tone and little vibrato in the “Dissonant” yielded fine articulation, but they also added greater tonal heft and variety of color.
Debussy’s use of the viola in unison with the first violin throughout the four movements of his Quartet in G minor is one of the hallmarks of its unique palette. He never pushes beyond the bounds of chamber music, but his thinking is also concerned with quasi-orchestral effects of color and texture.
After its decisive opening, the murmuring, rustling 16th notes in the first movement support the melodic elements. The scherzo, Assez vif et bien rythmé, has pizzicato episodes unusual in late 19th-century chamber music. The Andantino’s “soft and expressive” character is achieved by muted and unmuted strings, and quasi-archaic homophony. The finale, Très modéré, adds drama and brilliance. The Henschel played a stylish performance with appropriately Gallic sec sonority. Christoph Henschel’s violin had a pleasing delicacy but he miscalculated in the scherzo when his playing on the G-string sounded coarsely overemphatic; however, it did not extend to the remainder of the performance.
Their encore was Alla Tarantella, one of Five Pieces for String Quartet (1924) by the Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, born in 1893 in Prague and who died of tuberculosis, aged 48, in 1942 while a prisoner at the Wülzburg concentration camp near Weissenburg, Bavaria.