Janacek . Schulhoff . Sibelius
The Henschel Quartet have always known their own minds and so it is hardly that they should have put together this exciting programme of, while not full-blown outcasts, composers who hang moodily around on the fringe of chamber music. The First String Quartet of Ervin Schulhoff is one of the group’s signature pieces; and whereas his music may be largely unperformed and recorded these days – despite his having been one of the brightest stars in Germany’s pre-war firmament – this piece (written in 1924, just as he headed into his most prolific period) is the least unknown of his works.
Despite being tricky to listen to - it is an odd mixture of theremin-ghostly effects that wouldn’t be incongruous in the Ghostbusters soundtrack, and block playing that sounds like some sort of grotesque hoedown –the Henschel pull out its challenging phrases to just the right side of indulgent, disclosing what feels like a keen sense of altruism for the listener and an honest desire to expose the beauty of the music. That the Janáček isn’t abandoned enough for my taste, although its reverential (not a word often associated with the Henschel) care and attention to the micro-aspects of the phrasing certainly create a boundary that allows the composer’s unique creativity, is a slightly disappointingly surprising revelation on this disc. But the open heart that drives the Schulhoff, and even the Sibelius (which functions here more as an insight into the symphonies than a particularly interesting free-standing piece of chamber music), is more than enough to recommend it.
Gramophone January 2014 Caroline Gill