Schoenberg Quartet

Schönberg Kwartet




25 years book

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Air of another planet

A quarter century of musical conviction

The Schoenberg Quartet celebrates a milestone

Niek Nelissen

In search of the sources II: Boston

During his investigations into the meaning and performance practice of works of the Second Viennese School, Henk Guittart came across the old recordings of the Kolisch Quartet.
This Quartet gave the first performances of most of the Second Viennese School string quartets, in close collaboration with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. Fascinated by the possibility of obtaining information first-hand, Guittart attended a course given in 1977 by Rudolf Kolisch in the house in Mödling, near Vienna, where Schoenberg had lived. Given Kolisch’s inability to communicate with students who were not yet at home in this repertoire, it was a terrible disappointment. Several years later Robert Mann advised him, as already mentioned, to make contact with Eugene Lehner, another member of the Kolisch Quartet. Following a renewed bout of study in Los Angeles, Guittart travelled on to Boston, where he met Lehner. The latter agreed to coach the Schoenberg Quartet and exactly one year later the Quartet embarked on its first sessions with Lehner. From 1983 to 1989 the Quartet worked through the entire repertoire of the Second Viennese School with Lehner. The quartet’s warm memories of those sittings could fill a book. Asked why the quartet and Lehner were so immediately compatible, Wim de Jong volunteers a number of several answers. “In America he was seldom asked to teach this repertoire. He did give lessons, but he was always approached for the music of Bartók. His contact with us reminded him of his earlier days. For him it was therefore natural that he spoke German with us, even though he could obviously just as well have spoken English. It was a very special relationship. That man was this music. His lessons actually confirmed what we were already doing. That’s why it so greatly aroused his passion. From his own past he recognised our approach to the music.What we learned from him didn’t have so much to do with technique – at the most he might occasionally say, that would be better played up bow – as with musical perception. Making music, that was what it was all about. Sometimes he would say let me dance it out, upon which he would demonstrate the movement of the music.” Janneke van de Meer also remembers that Lehner was primarily concerned with the expressive power of the music. “He gave few technical instructions. He always talked about the expression of the music. One thing I found quite funny, because it also came up in Baroque performance around the same time, was the light emphasis, an agogic accent, on the first beat of the measure. That was also strongly characteristic of his own playing. He had a telling way of playing, vastly different from the horizontal singing that string players have come to favour more and more.”

Hans Woudenberg’s recollections are similar. “Lehner was totally focused on the search for freedom of musical expression. He had absorbed the entire classical string quartet repertoire to such a degree that he was able to say, I have lived for so long with this music that it feels as if I have written it myself. Please do not regard this as arrogance or a vain illusion, but indeed as a sign of my unbounded love for what has become the true substance of my life. I shall never forget how we studied Berg’s Opus 3 with him. At the end there is a passage for solo cello marked ganz frei zu gestalten, or something like that. Lehner said, the point at which it really starts getting difficult is when it has to be free. I’ll never forget the mobility of his face. When we started working with him he was already about eighty, but when we played his face took on a youthful look. If he then went on to sing or dance something – and he did that too – his face became incredibly expressive whereby he illustrated the music, as it were, and we immediately understood his meaning. A really special quality of his was that he managed to reach into the core of every one of us. In that way he managed to get the best out of us and for him we played at our best.”