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In review: Henschel Quartet

Web-only review:

Siblings show uncertainty in Henschel Quartet program
by Robert Battey

The Henschel Quartet, a youngish German group including three siblings, is a most peculiar ensemble. Its performance Wednesday at the Library of Congress raised a host of questions. The group has been coached by the highest-level artists, has won prizes at major international competitions, and now apparently has a viable career. But given the individual instrumental problems on display in a program of Schumann and Barber, one has to wonder what the future holds.

I have never seen a professional violinist so ill at ease on the instrument as the Henschel's leader. His vibrato sometimes sounded like an intermediate student's -- so tense and inconsistent as to be functionless. His herky-jerky bow destroyed any semblance of legato, and he could not execute a proper spiccato. From the opening notes of Schumann's First Quartet, it was impossible to tell which stresses and accents were the composer's and which resulted from technical glitches. His two siblings suffered from all of these problems, but to a lesser extent.
(read more after the jump)

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The Henschel's cellist (the non-sibling) is a fine, well-schooled player, and I can't imagine the frustration he must feel. Although the group somehow plays fairly well in tune, their respective idiosyncrasies with the bow make the matching of sound and attack a futile proposition. Their rendition of Barber's famous "Adagio" was like a scene from Beckett -- empty gestures and existential musings lacking any sense of direction.

They did give a humdinger of an encore, though: a movement from a quartet by Erwin Schulhoff, sort an if-Bartok-had-been-Jewish hoedown.

-- Robert Battey

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By Anne Midgette  |  April 16, 2010; 6:04 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  | Tags: Library of Congress  
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“The cellist Robert Battey … made his New York debut Wednesday night at Carnegie Recital Hall … He has, unfortunately, a tendency to play slightly flat, and his general sense of intonation was inevitably not reliable.”

Tim Page “Music/Noted in Brief; Robert Battey, Cellist, In New York Debut” New York Times December 9, 1985

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 21, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

I will not allow this blog to become a forum for gratuitous personal attacks. Please try to make comments that are actually germane to discussion. The fact that Mr. Battey once got a bad review himself has absolutely no bearing on his merits as a reviewer.

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 22, 2010 12:02 AM | Report abuse

This was in no manner a "gratuitous" personal attack.

A music reviewer's "general sense of intonation" not being reliable is definitely relevant to the skill-set required of a classical music critic in a national publication.
Perhaps you do not believe so.

As for gratuitous personal attacks on "youngish" classical musicians (who have won challenging international music competitions and been reviewed positively and constructively, worldwide), shall we ask the Washington Post Ombudsman Andy Alexander to review Mr Battey's professionalism in regards to his "gratuitous" personal attacks on local pianist Elena Ulyanova or the sibling members of the Henschel Quartet?

Other commenters to this forum also noted the unprofessionalism of Mr Battey's attack on pianist Elena Ulyanova.

How can Washington Post readers know what to make when Mr Battey appeals to "basics of rhetoric and melodic logic" when he himself -- at a youngish age of about 30 or 31 --"has unfortunately, a tendency to play slightly flat, and his general sense of intonation was inevitably not reliable” according to the later Pulitzer Prize music critic Tim Page writing in the New York Times?

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 22, 2010 9:37 AM | Report abuse

You yourself have dismissed Tim Page often enough on this blog that it's notable you take his words as gospel truth in this instance. It's also notable that you quote them so selectively. For the record, that review also said that "Mr. Battey is a solid, skillful cellist with a strong tone and musical instincts."

Anyone has a perfect right to disagree with a review, and present his or her own dissenting opinion: that's a basis for discussion, and I would love this blog to be a forum for exactly that kind of debate. But simply attacking a critic's integrity when he happens to write something with which you disagree is one of the more primitive forms of argument. Were you at the Henschel recital? Did you have a different take on it than Mr. Battey did? If so, that would be a lot more interesting to hear about than presenting selectively chosen quotes from a review 25 years old as if they were somehow telling or relevant.

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 22, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse

No, I did not hear the Henschel Quartet at the Library of Congress last week. I did, however, hear last week, live, the Alexander String Quartet, from San Francisco, at the Library of Congress, and the Diotima String Quartet, from Paris, at the Embassy of France.

“Although the group somehow plays fairly well in tune, their respective idiosyncrasies with the bow make the matching of sound and attack a futile proposition.” (Robert Battey, Washington Post, April 16, 2010)

Did Mr Battey inquire of the concert producers whether the musicians, from Munich, were using their own musical instruments or – rather -- the famous instruments, including bows, from the Library of Congress’s Collections of Musical Instruments? Sometimes, visiting musicians have problems swiftly adjusting to the famous string instruments on loan to them for a single performance. Should this not have been a question in the reviewer’s mind given the unusual musical uncertainty of execution she or he is experiencing? (Last week, Charles T. Downey sympathetically noted the ‘one-off’ problem that a very fine “youngish” French violinist was having with his instrument’s chin-rest.)

Reviewers sometimes need to check as to the identity of unfamiliar encores (when reported in review). Could not Mr Battey have inquired as to whether the Munich musicians were using their own musical instruments, or loaned musical instruments, on this occasion?

As to the first part of Mr Battey’s sentence that I quote above, how could Mr Battey know that the group “somehow plays fairly well in tune” if Mr Battey suffers from a documented “tendency to play slightly flat” and a “general sense of intonation […] inevitably not reliable.” Your other comment, above, about Mr Page is nonsensical.

A tendency by a late aspiring professional musician [Mr Battey] in his early 30’s to play slightly flat and with an unreliable general sense of intonation might be expected of someone who did not begin music at an early age (as did Elena Ulyanova), and who initially trained as a tympanist before suddenly switching to violoncello at the end of his teenage years.

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 22, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Four days before Mr Battey’s Post review, Allan Kozinn wrote in The New York Times of the Quartet’s Frick Collection concert [April 12, 2010]:

“Its musicians performed early-20th century scores by Erwin Schulhoff and Samuel Barber, and standard repertory works by Haydn and Schumann.

These players … moved easily among the four composers’ styles. But the most transfixing aspect of their performance was a hefty tone, both individually and as an ensemble. In solo passages, each produced a seductively buttery timbre, and throughout the performances Mr. Beyer-Karlshoj drew a sound so uncommonly fat that his instrument often sounded more like a double bass than a cello.

The quartet began with the least familiar of its four works, Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 (1924) and made a powerful case for it. Schulhoff, a Czech composer who died at the Wulzburg concentration camp in 1942, was an eclectic, and in this quartet, chunky Stravinskian rhythms and acidic figures that would have been at home in Bartok are offset by unabashedly tonal, folksy dance themes.

The Henschel players melded these influences seamlessly and gave the amalgam an otherworldliness that, in the finale, took on a compellingly eerie quality.

Haydn’s Quartet in G (Op. 76, No. 1) is immeasurably sunnier and lighter in texture than the Schulhoff, but it, too, draws amply on rustic folk rhythms. The flexibility in tempos that the ensemble brought to the opening Allegro con spirito was admirable, as was the humor it brought to the Menuetto, with its whimsical pauses and stark dynamic contrasts. But appealing as these lively movements were, the heart of the performance was the Adagio sostenuto, played here serenely and with a choralelike solidity.

Barber’s Quartet and Schumann’s Quartet No. 1 were contributions to this season’s celebrations of those composers’ anniversaries: Barber’s centenary and Schumann’s bicentenary. The Barber had the most inconsistent performance here: its opening movement sounded slightly shrill at times, and more Ivesian than it should have. But the Adagio, in its original single-string texture, was a thing of beauty.

The Schumann, which closed the program, was couched in warm hues and played with irresistible energy and high spirits.”

I also trust the musical instincts of the Library of Congress Music Division Chief (who happens to be a female cancer survivor) and four senior producers more than I trust the music instincts of the Washington Post music critic staff – which appears to include some “frustrated” classical musicians who might have secured their positions through nepotism.

Posted by: snaketime1 | April 22, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Watching you respond by citing other people's opinions, I'm struck that I don't think I've ever seen you post your own opinion about a piece of music on this blog. When you disagree with a review you quote published critics rather than saying what you yourself think. I would love to hear your own opinions about music -- what you thought, say, of the Diotima Quartet, who gave an important and unfortunately unreviewed concert. And I think you'd contribute a lot more to the discussion by sharing what you know than you do by taking potshots at what you don't like.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | April 23, 2010 1:11 AM | Report abuse

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