Page 14, 17th July 2009

17th July 2009
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Page 14, 17th July 2009 — A champion quartet shows its brilliance
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A champion quartet shows its brilliance

MUSIC REVIEW Michael White Henschel Quartet

SELIGENSTADT FESTIVAL, GERMANY

Crouch End Festival Chorus

BARBICAN, LONDON

With so many top-rank string quartets around it’s like a permanent Olympics: champions competing against champions, and everyone in some respects a winner.

Maybe this is no bad thing. But crowded markets aren’t too easy to assess, only to sample. And there’s one quartet that’s come to prominence, with high-profile dates at the Proms and elsewhere, that I’ve persistently managed to miss. It’s called the Henschel, which is the name of three of its members: the two violins are brothers, the viola their sister. It’s based in Munich. And during the past year it’s caused a stir in music circles by unearthing a forgotten but wonderful quintet by Max Bruch which it showcased at Wigmore Hall and recorded on the German label Neos.

So, thinking it was time to find out more, I’ve just been to the chamber music festival the quartet runs near Frankfurt, in a small town called Seligenstadt that no one seems to know about, even though it’s a gem of old timbered houses huddled around a baroque abbey and postcard-perfect wherever you look.

The concerts happened in the abbey cloister, exposed to the hazards of rain, chiming bells and flights into Frankfurt airport, but otherwise irreproachably charming. And though intimately informal, with DIY stage management, they came with fierce intensity – as was the case when the Henschels played their trademark Bruch quintet, with extra viola Rafael Altino.

Bruch is something of a three-piece wonder: famous for his Scottish Fantasy, a cello concerto called Kol Nidrei, and a violin concerto that regularly tops the Classic FM charts, but with a whole catalogue of other works that no one plays. This quintet was a case in point until the Henschels took it on. And while it would’ve sounded anachronistic in its own time – written in 1918, it stalks the German Romantic sound world of 40 years earlier – nearly a century on it slips more easily into the flow of music from the past, with passages of passionate and powerful beauty that make glorious listening. A score worth searching out.

For me, there was another great discovery in this festival: the Gliere Octet, played by the joint forces of the Henschels and a group from Copenhagen called the Paixo Quartet. Gliere, even more than Bruch, was someone who continued writing later than you’d think: he lived till 1956. But his Octet was an early-ish work, composed in 1900 with a ravishing Romantic tunefulness that erupts from the writing in all the bravura of youth.

That both the Henschels and the Paixos have first violins who lead with a decisive though volatile energy made them a good match for this grand ensemble. But if comparisons are in order, the Henschels refine their energy with more control and polish; and those qualities give them a more encompassing excellence that explains their status on the world stage.

This year is their 15th as a stable group: with three close-bonded siblings on the upper strings they had problems finding someone from outside the family to be their cellist. But they made it. And they’re in Britain in December, playing at Kings Place in London. Recommended.

If the world of string quartets is flourishing, the world of largescale chorus singing around London isn’t – not for lack of numbers (there are choruses aplenty) but for lack of quality. I say this with reluctance because the last thing I want to do is discourage anyone from singing: it’s a good thing. But an even better thing is to sing well; and too many choruses settle for poor standards. They aim low.

One exception is the Crouch End Festival Chorus, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year under a dynamic and intuitive conductor, David Temple, who has galvanised his voices into probably the best of the bunch outside the central London elite corps. They were at the Barbican last week for a disappointing Fauré Requiem (no ardour) but a compensatingly alive, vital and rousing Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony that delivered the goods in almost every respect. I just hope it drew singers from other outer London choruses into the audience. They’d have learned something.




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