Music and Beyond: Bennewitz Quartet forges its own musical path

The Bennewitz Quartet is Jakub Fišer (1st violin), Štěpán Ježek (2nd violin), Jiří Pinkas (viola) and Štěpán Doležal (cello).

Prague’s Bennewitz Quartet is making a return to the Music and Beyond Festival with three performances that illustrate the contradiction inherent in the ensemble’s history.

The Bennewitz Quartet, named for the 19th century violinist Antonín Bennewitz, a seminal figure in the creation of the Czech violin school, has been a bit of an oddity in the Czech Republic’s chamber scene, says second violin Štěpán Ježek.

The quartet doesn’t play a lot of Czech music, or at least until the past few years, they haven’t.

“It’s a bit of story I have to say,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE. “We started in Prague (21 years ago) at the Academy where we studied with Milan Skampa who was a violist with the Smetana Quartet, the most famous Czech string quartet.

“We spent two nice years with him and it was definitely interesting. But I have to say very openly should we have remained with Czech music only it would not have worked.”

Ježek says the door to a lasting career in chamber music flowed from two years spent with Rainer Schmidt of the Hagen Quartet and then a stint with Walter Levin of the LaSalle Quartet.

“We were lucky to be one of the last groups to study with him. He stopped teaching not long after we finished.”

Ježek explained that the Bennewitz Quartet considered their core repertoire to be what is the heart of German repertoire centred around Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and the Second Viennese School, including Alban Berg.

That decision taken by the quartet early in their career led to a rather uncertain homecoming after all that study elsewhere.

“In that respect when we came home after all this, we saw ourselves and others saw us as aliens in our own culture.

“We played differently. We played different repertoire — Schubert, Berg, Schumann and Brahms. People don’t tend to play that music in Prague,” he said.

In the Czech capital, he said, audiences and critics seem to want to hear Janáček, Dvořák and Smetana “over and over again, which we didn’t do very much in fact.”

It took quite a long time but the quartet’s thinking has evolved.

“Six years ago our original first violin got married to a Swiss lady and he now lives in Switzerland and the new guy (Jakub Fišer) was keener on Czech repertoire. That was one reason.

“Another reason was purely practical. We have realized that, no matter how we have considered ourselves terribly interesting as a Czech group playing non-Czech repertoire, the concert organizers don’t feel the same way.”

The quartet was always being asked ‘Why don’t you play Czech music?’

They also found themselves caught in a trap. When they played Schubert, for example, in Germany, they would get a review that would speak about a “Slavic” performance in not a very positive way. The, in Prague, the critics would note the performance as being”slightly cold in a German-ish kind of way. Everybody wants to pick at something. It’s just the reality of it.”

Ježek says there is a lot of talk in music circles in Europe about respecting the tradition of this or that country’s music.

“I think if you went into the street in Vienna and ask anyone in street to sing any song they would likely be incapable of it. All this talk about tradition and keeping a connection to that tradition, it’s became empty speech.”

Is this a reflection to the nationalism that seems to dominate politics in Europe today.

Perhaps. “I am afraid,” Ježek says, “that that nationalism is very superficial. Where is the real substance of it? People blaming others.”

But the pressure to play Czech music is leading Bennewitz to choose repertoire more carefully.

But they do have a bottom line rule: They play “music that speaks to us and we feel we can speak to the audience with. That is the only decision.

“Sometimes we will play a certain piece five or six times and then we get together and say this isn’t working.” They will drop the piece or give it a break and return after a few years.

As their career has evolved, he said, the players have learned the value of patience.

Ježek was once a young player in a hurry.

“People would say, ‘It takes time. Now I can see it.”

That applies to playing with his colleagues.

“You have to really learn how to read your colleagues.Then you can understand what each of us has to say, musically, in a performance. Each one of us stresses a different aspect of the music. One is into the system and all about perfection; another is more into ideas; another is more about moments of inspiration.

“It’s important to discover this and give each aspect a way to find its way out at the right moment. This takes time. Of course, playing your second Mozart piece is different from playing your 12th Mozart piece.

Bennewitz started in 1998 at the Prague Academy when four students got together to play music. But really they are still young in quartet years.

“We hope to last little longer. There is one Czech ensemble, the Panocha Quartet, that has lasted more than 40 years with no changes in the group.”

In Ottawa, the full mix of the Bennewitz repertoire will be on display in their three concerts.

The first on July 5 will feature their German side with a piece from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, Mendelssohn’s Opus 13 and Beethoven Opus 132.

The central piece is the Mendelssohn which has connections to Bach and to Beethoven, Ježek said.

“Mendelssohn had rediscovered Bach. He was 18 when he got the copy of the St. Matthew Passion.

“I find that totally amazing. I can’t imagine an 18 year old kid being given this pile of scribble basically … it was all handwritten … and reading this gigantic baroque piece, falling in love with it and then staging a performance in Berlin. That was pretty amazing.”

Opus 13 too was based on a love song Mendelssohn had written for a young woman named Bette.

At the same time he was “entertaining himself” with the late Beethoven quartets which his father thought were “crazy pieces by a crazy guy.”

Beethoven’s famous Opus 132 directly inspired Mendelssohn’s Opus 13.

On July 6, they play Mozart’s Quartet C major K 465; Martinů’s Quartet no.3; and Dvořák’s  Quartet F major, opus 96 ‘American’.

“We were probably the only Czech quartet that didn’t play The American. For many years we refused to play it. We thought everyone else was playing it over and over.” But they finally broke down. “It is beautiful music” after all.

The final concert on July 7 is a Czech concert featuring: Josef Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’, Op.35a’ Hans Krása’s Theme and Variations for String Quartet; Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet no. 1 Kreutzer Sonata and Dvořák’s String Quartet E flat major, opus 51, Slavonic.

Music and Beyond presents the Bennewitz Quartet
Where: Dominion-Chalmers
When: July 5 at 4 p.m.

Where: First Baptist Church
When: July 6 at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Dominion-Chalmers
When: July 7 at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.