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Schulhoff Highlight by Vogler Quartet at CCM

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 20, 2009 - 5:42:16 PM in reviews_2009

(first  published in The Cincinnati Enquirer November 19, 2009)

Even the program notes deserved a bow Tuesday night (November 17) in Robert J. Werner Recital Hall at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

   The Vogler Quartet of Berlin brought music by Haydn, Schumann, Dvorak and Erwin Schulhoff to the season's second concert by Chamber Music Cincinnati.  Music is a stream, and stylistic differences aside, all these works shared a romantic thread, as noted so engagingly by CCM's Albert Mühlböck in the program booklet.

   Haydn was stepping up to the romantic period in his 1794 Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3 ("the Rider").  Twentieth-century Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff was coming out of it in his 1924 String Quartet No. 1.  Robert Schumann was smack in the middle of it with his Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41, and Dvorak -- well, he was just in love in his "Cypresses," a collection of quartets based on a song set he wrote for his first (unrequited) love.

   Founded in East Berlin in 1985, the Vogler Quartet -- violinists Tim Vogler and Frank Reinecke, violist Stefan Fehlandt and cellist Stephan Forck -- have a Cincinnati connection, having spent a quarter at CCM in 1989 studying with the LaSalle Quartet.  The influence shows in their advocacy of contemporary music and the polish and perception they bring to it.

Erwin Schulhoff
Without doubt, their performance of Schulhoff's Quartet was the highpoint of the concert and a welcome reminder of the great music we usually do not hear.  That's the way it was until recently for Schulhoff, whose Jewish blood earned him death in a concentration camp in 1942 and oblivion for his music.  Along with other composers "forbidden" by the Third Reich, he is enjoying belated attention, and his String Quartet No. 1 is a stunning example of what we have been missing.

   The Vogler grabbed their listeners by the ears in the opening Presto con fuoco, a fire-and-ice, hoedown-like movement, whose vigorous unison passages were interleaved with steely playing on the bridge ("sul ponticello").  Violist Fehlandt enjoyed the spotlight often, as in the movement marked "con malinconia grot" ("with grotesque melancholy") and there was plenty of folkish color in the Allegro "giocoso alla Slovacca" ("in playful Slovakian style").

   The final Andante -- it is unusual for a quartet to close with a slow movement -- had a tragic cast, with a kind of mini-cadenza for violinist Vogler and long, woozy passages that led to a final, forlorn fadeout.

   Dvorak set 12 of his "Cypresses" for string quartet.  Heard were nos. 1, 2, 3, 11 and 7 with the lovelorn titles:  "I'm sure and hope sustains me," "In many hearts, 'tis still as death," "Overcome by your powerful eyes," "Even now the countryside lightly slumbers" and "Round your former dwelling, there I stagger."  The quartet gave them an affectionate reading, by turns florid, serious, sweetly reflective, even wryly witty.

   Schumann was blissfully united with his wife Clara when he wrote his String Quartet No. 3, and the Vogler's performance was flush with feeling.  You could almost feel the composer's pulse in  the first movement, with its downward sighs and catchy syncopation, and his exuberance in the second, a colorful theme-and-variations movement.  The players produced a luscious sound in the Adagio, from the simplest cello pizzicato -- Forck can make the smallest gesture a work of art --  to the soft, almost organ-like conclusion.  The joyous, dotted-rhythm finale had all the flair Schumann put into it, and the Vogler's precision and ensemble clarity were superb to bring the concert to an end.

   Not to overlook Haydn, his "Rider" quartet -- so named for its galloping final movement -- was given an unabashedly romantic reading to open the concert.  Violinist Vogler presided like a diva, and the music overflowed with expression.  There was abundant warmth in the slow movement, and the giddyup finale seemed to strain at the leash.

   Chamber Music Cincinnati's next concert is Jan. 12 at CCM with the contemporary music sextet eighth blackbird.