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Czech Chamber Music Society • Bennewitz Quartet


The Bennewitz Quartet always generates excitement at the Rudolfinum, so we can be sure that this will again be the case when they play Antonín Dvořák’s relatively less-frequently performed String Quartet No. 11. Bohuslav Martinů’s First String Quartet is described as impressionistic, and one need not fear to call Schulhoff’s music sensational.

Subscription series II | Duration of the programme 1 hour 50 minutes | Czech Chamber Music Society

Programme

Bohuslav Martinů 
String Quartet No. 1, H 117 “French Quartet” (23')
Moderato. Allegro ma non troppo
Andante moderato
Allegro non troppo

Erwin Schulhoff
String Quartet No. 1 (15')

— Intermission —

Antonín Dvořák 
String Quartet No. 11 in C major, Op. 61 (38')

Performers

Bennewitz Quartet
Jakub Fišer violin 
Štěpán Ježek violin 
Jiří Pinkas viola
Štěpán Doležal cello

Photo illustrating the event Czech Chamber Music Society • Bennewitz Quartet

Rudolfinum — Dvořák Hall

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Performers

Bennewitz Quartet  

The Bennewitz Quartet, bearing the name of the violinist and director of a music conservatory in Prague Antonín Bennewitz since 1998, is one of the top international chamber ensembles, a status confirmed not only by their victories in two prestigious competitions – Osaka in 2005 and Prémio Paolo Borciani, Italy in 2008, but also by the acclaim of the critics. As early as 2006, the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote: “... the music was remarkable not just for its clarity of structure, but for the beautiful tonal palette and purity of intonation in its execution. Only very rarely does one experience such skilfully crafted and powerful harmonies... Great art.” The ensemble has received various awards on the Czech music scene as well. In 2004 the quartet was awarded The Prize of the Czech Chamber Music Society and in 2019 the four musicians won the Classic Prague Award for the Best Chamber Music Performance of the year. 

The quartet currently performs at major venues both in the Czech Republic and abroad (Wigmore Hall London, Musikverein Wien, Konzerthaus Berlin, Rudolfinum and others), and is regularly invited to festivals such as the Salzburger Festspiele, Luzerne Festival or the Prague Spring. The group has had the privilege of working with the outstanding artists: Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Alexander Melnikov, Vadim Gluzman, Isabel Charisius and others.

The Bennewitz Quartet especially enjoys playing and performing on the Czech domestic music scene. Particular highlights have included their cooperation with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor Jiří Bělohlávek for a performance of Bohuslav Martinů’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra. The group has made a recording of both quartets by Leoš Janáček for Czech Television in the unique space of Villa Tugendhat in Brno. The Czech Radio regularly records major concerts of the quartet.

The members of the quartet put a lot of stress on the inspiring and sometimes challenging choice of their concert repertoire. In 2012 and 2015, the ensemble performed in a sole evening the complete of Bartók’s six string quartets in Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and in Swedish Upsala. In 2014, the four presented a premiere of The Songs of Immigrants by Slavomír Hořínka in Konzerthaus Berlin. In 2019 the quartet added a new CD in its discography featuring the music of the persecuted Jewish composers H. Krása, V. Ullmann, E. Schulhoff and P. Haas on the Supraphon label.

In the 2023/2024 season, the Bennewitz Quartet will return to a number of European venues (Stuttgart, Mannheim, Heidelberg, Linz, Bilbao) and will make their debuts in Klagenfurt, Darmstadt and Duisburg. The quartet will again perform in the United States and Canada, and will continue its various concert projects in the Czech Republic, including a collaboration with the Dvořák Prague Festival. The ensemble is currently preparing the release of a new CD featuring string quartets by “those who used to play together” – Haydn, Mozart, Vaňhal and Dittersdorf. 

Since 1998 the quartet bears the name of the violinist and director of a music conservatory in Prague, Antonín Bennewitz (1833‒1926) who contributed greatly to the establishment of the Czech violin school. The most significant musicians who count among his disciples are Otakar Ševčík and František Ondříček and above all Karel Hoffman, Josef Suk and Oskar Nedbal who, under Bennewitz’s influence, formed the famous Bohemian Quartet.

Compositions

Bohuslav Martinů
String Quartet No. 1, H 117 “French Quartet”

Although Bohuslav Martinů’s “French Quartet” is numbered as his first, he had already written several works for the same combination of instruments, some of which are now lost, while others like the programmatic quartet Tři jezdci (Three Riders, 1902) add to our picture of Martinů’s musical childhood, and yet others like the String Quartet in E flat major (1917) reveal his gradual development as a composer. Martinů’s studies at the Prague Conservatoire did not go smoothly, whether as a violin pupil, in the organ department (where he also learned composition), or from the 1909/1910 school year in the regular composition course. He did not graduate from the conservatoire, but he stayed with the violin and used it to earn a living, giving violin lessons and performing as a violinist. In 1915 began playing in the violin section of the Czech Philharmonic, at first as a substitute, then a few years later as a full-time member. He spent the war years in Polička and in Prague without being sent to the front. And he composed. It had been Martinů’s plan to enter his String Quartet in E flat major, sometimes called the quartet “number zero”, in a competition for a new chamber work held regularly by the Czech Chamber Music Society since 1895. And with a bit of a delay, he succeeded: in 1920 Martinů won the second prize for his quartet, and no first prize was awarded.

Written not too long afterwards, the “French Quartet” (H 117) is designated in the autograph as the composer’s second quartet, but already by the late 1920s it had been numbered definitely as the first. Its date of composition is not entirely clear; the year is usually given as 1918, but its dating in the early 1920s is more likely. The work differs fundamentally from the “Quartet Number Zero” in terms of its inspiration from French music and in particular from the Impressionism of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The first movement (Moderato) develops a meditative main theme and a lively, contrasting second subject. The second movement (Andante moderato) is in large-scale ternary form and has three varied themes. The following dance movement (Allegro non troppo) is structured as a rondo.

Later the composer added a fourth movement. The Bennewitz Quartet, however, performs the original three-movement version of the composition, enriched by all the modifications and revisions that Martinů introduced directly into the parts during rehearsals with the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet, which also premiered in 1927 (!). The parts with the notes disappeared for many years in the bowels of the Prague Conservatory's music archive, where they were rediscovered by musicologist Aleš Březina, an expert on the works of Bohuslav Martinů.  

The work was premiered in 1927 (!) by the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet, which first played the composition in Brno on 5 October at a concert presented by the Beseda brněnská (Brno Artists’ Society), and soon afterwards, on 10 October, it was heard at a regular concert of Prague’s Czech Chamber Music Society. In both cases, as was often then the custom, a contemporary work (Martinů) was at the centre of a programme framed by established works from the classical chamber repertoire: in this particular case, Dvořák’s String Quartet in E major, Op. 80, Beethoven’s Op. 135, and quartets by Karel Bendl and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Already by then however, the quartet’s contemporary or modern character was a relative matter because Martinů had changed his style during the 1920s and had already produced such works as the String Quartet No. 2 (Prague premiere in 1925), Vřava (La Bagarre, world premiere in 1927), and the String Quintet (composed in 1927). In this context, the delayed premiere of the First Quartet gave the music critics the impression of a retrospective of the music of the composer’s youth.

Erwin Schulhoff
String Quartet No. 1

Erwin Schulhoff likewise wrote his String Quartet No. 1 (1924) with the elan of a 30-year-old and with experience from his earlier attempts in the field of chamber music. The work dates from a period of personal and professional satisfaction. After having moved around for years, Schulhoff’s family settled in Prague, and he won recognition as a wonderful pianist and composer whose works were acclaimed at home and abroad and were attracting the interest of publishers. From a Jewish-German family, Schulhoff published treatises and commentary on contemporary music in the journal Auftakt, for example. He took inspiration from Debussy, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Expressionism, the Second Viennese School, Dadaism, jazz, and Les Six as well as from the avant-garde of the visual arts and literature. He was active briefly in the quarter-tone department of the Prague Conservatoire led by Alois Hába, and he performed Hába’s compositions for quarter-tone piano. After 1927, he was one of the composers in Prague’s Society for Modern Music whose works were performed most frequently. He became an active participant at ISCM festivals (International Society for Contemporary Music), and at one of them in Venice in September 1925, his First String Quartet (WV 72) was played. The noteworthy composition was played by the Czechoslovak Quartet, which had introduced the work to the public a year earlier at its Prague premiere.

The work has four movements, but contrary to the traditional layout, it ends chillingly with a slow movement (Andante molto sostenuto). A relentless ostinato seems to be counting off the passing of time, which would lead ultimately (as we now know) to the tragic events of the 1930s and of the Second World War. At that time, Schulhoff also met a tragic fate, dying at the Wülzburg concentration camp in Bavaria. The quartet exhibits the influence of Expressionism, Neoclassicism, and Neofolklorism, and although Schulhoff himself did not engage in any systematic study of Slavic folk lore, he captured its character effectively. This is especially true of the dance-like third movement (Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca). Adding to the mood of the second movement (Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca, i.e. “with grotesque melancholy”) is a stream of technically sophisticated, virtuosic procedures, which are brilliant not only sonically, but also visually. Already in the opening movement (Presto con fuoco), Schulhoff convinces us of the wide range of expressive possibilities offered by string instruments.

Antonín Dvořák
String Quartet No. 11 in C major, Op. 61

Unlike the composers of the two previous works, Antonín Dvořák was already 40 years old when he wrote his String Quartet in C major, Op. 61 (B 121). He had enjoyed success at home and abroad and already had ten numbered string quartets and many other chamber compositions to his credit. Amongst his public successes during this period were the first Prague performance of his Symphony No. 6 in D major, Op. 60 and the premiere of the opera Tvrdé palice (The Stubborn Lovers) at the New Czech Theatre. His oratorio Stabat Mater, Op. 58, was issued in print, and at the end of 1881 Dvořák completed his orchestral Legends, Op. 59. In parallel with his Eleventh String Quartet, he was also working on the opera Dimitrij. In short, things were going well for Dvořák, and publishers and performers were taking interest in his music. The String Quartet No. 11 in C major was commissioned by the Hellmesberger Quartet from Vienna, where the ensemble’s first violinist Joseph Hellmesberger Snr. was working. It seems not to have been easy to deal with the demands of writing an opera while also working on a quartet, but Dvořák was already at work by October, and he estimated that it would take five or six weeks to write the new quartet. Hellmesberger therefore announced the premiere for 15 December. After Dvořák had composed a first movement in F major, he set it aside (it was later listed in Burghauser’s catalogue as B 120) and started over, this time in C major, and finished the quartet on 10 November 1881. The autograph score bears a dedication to Hellmesberger, but as it turned out, the first documented performance was given in Berlin thanks to the Joachim Quartet (1882). According to the composer, the critics underappreciated the work.

There may be something to the supposition that Hellmesberger backed out of playing the C-major quartet for personal reasons. There was a vast difference between the “Slavonic” String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op. 51, and the following Eleventh String Quartet: the composer abandoned folk elements, instead favouring greater harmonic and motivic concentration and taking the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven or Franz Schubert as his models. By doing so, Dvořák probably did not fulfil Hellmesberger’s expectations. The first movement (Allegro) is in sonata form, and the second (Poco adagio e molto cantabile) is an engaging dialogue between the violins and the other instruments. The third movement (Scherzo. Allegro vivo) with its thematic reference to the 1879 Polonaise in A flat major for cello is followed by a joyous finale (Vivace). One demonstration of the quality and importance of Dvořák’s Opus 61 is the fact that it was quickly included on a programme of the Czech Chamber Music Society (at its sixth concert in 1895), and it retains a place in the society’s repertoire to this day.

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