Well, there are string quartets, and there are string quartets, but the Bennewitz String Quartet remains in a class of its own. The powerful impression these four fine young musicians made in Carmel two years ago was doubly confirmed and reinforced by their splendid performance last night at All Saints Church in Carmel.
In her greetings to the audience, Carmel Music Society President Anne Thorp mentioned not only that the Bennewitz Quartet was returning by popular demand, but that we would be hearing them in an entirely new acoustical configuration. The Carmel Music Society was trying a new experiment in this concert by placing the four players in the round, so that the audience was to be enveloped and surrounded by their sound. Although this arrangement might be less successful for a piano recital, where the piano lid would block the sound for people seated behind the instrument, on this occasion, it was not only successful acoustically, but the closer proximity to members of the audience created a new intimacy, such as we rarely have an opportunity to experience.
The four musicians of the Bennewitz Quartet —violinists Jiri Nemecek & Stepan Jezek, violist Juri Pinkas and cellist Stepan Dolezal — are a tightly knit ensemble in which each instrument blends so thoroughly in the musical fabric that the resultant blend is extraordinarily pure and satisfying. And, to hear them in the rich sonorous acoustical environment of All Saints Church added immeasurably to the impact of their music making.
The opening work in this concert was the Mozart Quartet in C Major, K.465, known as the “Dissonant” because of the startling opening section that sounds as disturbing today as it must have sounded in its premiere performance in 1788. Although most of the remainder of this work was somewhat more conventional, there were flashes of Sturm und Drang in the dramatic episode in C minor in the trio of the Menuetto that foreshadowed the dark and troubled Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466, Mozart was about to unleash on Viennese audiences. The great finale of the C Major Quartet was a significant revelation as played by the gifted young Bennewitz players. This was bold and powerful playing of the highest order.
The next work we heard was Smetana’s Quartet No. 2 in D Minor, an amazing work, whose first movement tells us a lot about the pain, anguish and isolation Smetana must have felt during the last two years of his life. After a second movement based on dance-like tunes, the Bennewitz players blew us away with fantastic energy at the beginning of the third movement. Listening to the impassioned playing of the Bennewitz Quartet in the final movement, the sound they produced was so richly resonant that it at times it was difficult to believe that so much sonority was produced by only four players.
Ending the concert was a magnificent performance of Dvořák’s Quartet No. 14 in A-flat Major. This lovely outpouring of Romanticism with its infectious melodies and rich rhythmic vitality is a delight for the mind and balm for the soul. It received a beautifully detailed and passionate performance on this occasion. After prolonged applause, the player returned to perform one of Dvořák’s songs, originally written for voice and piano, but subsequently arranged for string quartet. It was lovely.
The late Jasha Veissi, violist of the Kolisch Quartet, used to say in jest that the definition of a string quartet is “four players on stage having the time of their lives, with the audience bored out of their minds.” Well, with the Bennewitz players, we were also having the time of our lives. This was ensemble playing at its best.