Although the group have been together since 1998, there was still an air of boyish freshness as the Bennewtiz Quartet arrived on stage. Nevertheless, with a first half of challenging Viennese music, this Czech ensemble revealed themselves as a Quartet wanting to undertake serious repertoire that takes them outside of their comfort zone. This, unfortunately, was all too clear in their uneasy performance of Schubert, which did not succeed in mediating between its different emotions. However, a highly expressive performance of Webern demonstrated that the Quartet could do justice to another Viennese master, before their joyous return to their countryman Dvořák.

Schubert’s String Quartet in A minor, D 804 “Rosamunde” was certainly not an easy piece with which to begin the programme. Written in 1824 as Schubert was coming to terms with his own mortality, it is firmly positioned as a ‘late’ work. The result is a work that is highly introverted, but it is also one of Schubert’s most melancholic. It requires a performance of intimacy and intensity, which together are difficult to achieve. Nonetheless, the opening of the concert certainly reached the right level of intimacy. The quartet sank into the opening, and it felt like we were joining it after the music had already begun. The Bennewitz succeeded in sounding quiet while still filling the hall. It felt as though we were eavesdropping into a private performance, where the players were playing only for themselves.

However, the Bennewitz were occasionally too timid, revealed by moments that were hesitant, or even nervous. They were not fully able to reconcile the two sides of intimacy and melancholy, tending more towards the former. This meant losing some of the other emotional expressivity that this work calls for, especially during the subtler moments. Indeed, their playing was at its best during the rare ferocious passages when intimacy was not required. Nonetheless, they were entirely comfortable with playing as an ensemble, relishing the different voicings that Schubert demands. The held notes at the end of phrases during the Andante allowed the ensemble to exhibit their wonderfully rich sound, and in the trio section of Menuetto Allegretto the lovely middle texture played by Štěpán Ježek and Jiří Pinkas gratefully come through. It was a shame that the quartet did not relish their sound as much in the Andante, which would, in my view, have benefitted from a more relaxed tempo. Although its tempo marking is not ‘slow’, the melody needed more breadth to allow it to speak.

If Schubert required space to speak, the same cannot be said for Webern’s 6 Bagatelles, Op. 9. Lasting approximately four minutes, and with the longest movement being a mere thirteen bars, this work compacts a huge amount of expressivity in to a very small amount of time. There was no room for error from the Bennewitz Quartet, and it forced them to pay attention to every little detail. Even the simple final pizzicato note at the end of fifth bagatelle was invested with a huge amount of meaning and expressivity. To say that a performance felt like it lasted longer than it actually did is usually an insult, but in this performance it was really an indication that there was so much more than four minutes worth of expression being conveyed. 

After the interval, the Bennewitz made a return to their home-turf with Dvořák’s String Quartet no. 10 in E flat, Op. 51. Their love for the work was evident from the outset. Jakub Fišer’s tender treatment of the opening melody made its growth entirely natural. The second movement’s contrast between the dumka and furiant was huge, as the quartet stepped into an unbelievably new world for the furiant. They were fully committed to the dumka’s folk character too; with cellist Štěpçán Doležal exaggerated strums being entirely fitting. Above this, Fišer’s melody was beautifully melancholic, responded to thoughtfully by Pinkas’ lovely low register on the viola. Yet it was in the Finale where the quartet really started having fun. They thoroughly enjoyed its speed after the slow Romanza, as well as its genial, jolly mood.

The intensity and concentration the Bennewitz found in the Webern proved that they could find all the different expressions in this extremely concise piece. Yet it was a shame that they could not do the same in Schubert. All the same, their performance of Dvorak demonstrated that when the quartet really loves the music that they are playing, they could put on a delightful performance.