To anyone who goes to a concert expecting the kind of synthetic, postproduction perfection common in commercial, classical recordings, the Henschel Quartett’s performance presented by the New Mexico Performing Arts Society on June 18th in Santa Fe may have been disappointing, but for those who know that live chamber music is a complex, visceral experience, the concert proved to be truly inspiring. The Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel posed sonic difficulties to the Quartet early on. With smooth, reflective flooring, high ceilings and bare walls, the sound of the instruments quickly muddied in the air. The dry heat tarnished a few of the opening notes of Haydn’s Opus 76, no. 1, while the wet, echoey acoustic prevented a true synchronicity of musical lines, yet the rhetorical framework and the personality of the ensemble remained thoroughly intact. For a student, the Adagio sostenuto would have been a lesson in bow control. In the hands of the Henschel Quartet, it became a demonstration of technical mastery. The humor of the Menuetto may have been lost on the audience, but the pizzacati onstage bristled with awareness of Haydn’s musical wit, and the passages of virtuosity in the violin flashed the hall with their brilliance. By the Allegro non troppo the Quartet had settled into the space and were able to finish the piece in style.
Visions and Miracles by Christopher Theofanidis provided a glimpse at the personal connection between the performers and the composer. Alex Fortes (second violin) offered a brief and amiable introduction in which he described Mr. Theofinidis as a close friend of the quartet. This relationship brought a deep and accessible meaning to the only twentieth-century work on the program. Inspired by music from Medieval Spain, the Theofanidis draws on the rapid alternation between units of two and three as a unifying motif. Written in three parts, each segment responds to a different phrase: “All joys wills eternity,” from the philosophical writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; “Peace Love Light YOUMEONE,” from the psychedelically inspired Timothy Leary; and “I add brilliance to the sun,” from a medieval troubadour. With quartal harmonies and modal scales, the first movement evoked memories of organum, while the quickly shifting meters gave the music a liquid sheen. The second movement transported the audience into outer space, where harmonics and high tessitura in the cello eddied around Timothy Leary’s ashes amidst the stars. The last movement returned to the primary two versus three motif, with shifting sections, and ended in the brilliant, glowing warmth of a full-bodied major chord.
The last piece on the program, Beethoven’s Opus 59 no. 3, the last of the “Razumovsky” quartets, offered the opportunity for the Henschel Quartett to demonstrate their mastery of the string quartet repertoire. From the slow introduction of the Andante con moto, each phrase came across as perfectly shaped and nuanced. The second movement brought the audience on a journey through space and time, where the genius of Beethoven’s musical ideas became exposed, like an ornate mosaic puzzle, as yet unsolved. The stately Menuetto grazziozo let the audience back to courtly Europe before the tempestuous Allegro molto brought down the house with Beethoven’s particular brand of Viennese proto-rock.
Having already established themselves as one of the leading quartets on the circuit today, the Henschel Quartett did not disappoint. They proved that classical chamber music is very much alive, and that risk-taking performances always inspire audiences more than pitch-perfect, robotic, carbon-copied, musical impersonations.