One of the main attractions in the town of Heimbach, located on the river Rur in the district of Düren in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is a hydroelectric power station built in 1905 in the Art Nouveau style. This site is significant enough to be mentioned on the Wikipedia page for Heimbach; and, because it was such a draw, pianist Lars Vogt decided that it would be an ideal venue for a chamber music festival. Founded in 1998, the festival was dubbed Spannungen by Vogt, a noun rich with multiple meanings. Vogt’s preferred translation is “tensions;” but it can also mean “voltages” in the technical literature, as well as “suspense” with connotations of both “stress” and “excitement.”
A little over a week ago, Avi-Service, based in Cologne, released a new recording of two string quartets performed at the 2015 Spannungen Festival, produced in conjunction with Deutschlandfunk (Germany’s national radio company). The CD thus presents two live recordings deprived of the visual setting. This would probably be disappointing for those who want to know more about the power station but less distracting for those primarily interested in the music.
The first of those recordings, made on June 11, offers the lesser-known of the two offerings, Giuseppe Verdi’s only string quartet, written in the key of E minor and composed in 1873. The performers are violinists Christian Tetzlaff and Florian Donderer, violist Hartmut Rohde, and cellist Maximillian Hornung. On the second recording Donderer switches over to viola, playing with violinists Yura Lee and Katharine Gowers and cellist Frans Helmerson. This group performs a more familiar quartet by Antonín Dvořák, his Opus 51 (“Slavonic”) quartet in E-flat major. Their performance was recorded on June 14.
It is unclear how seriously Verdi took his string quartet, but it definitely does not deserve to be dismissed offhand. It is said that Verdi kept copies of Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartets on the table at his bedside. Apparently, he found them optimum bedtime reading, which should not surprise anyone who starts digging around in his opera scores. There is a crowd scene in Simon Boccanegra that appears to have been strongly influenced by the frantic Presto (second) movement from Beethoven’s Opus 130 in B-flat major; and one of these days a conductor will encounter just the right acoustic space in which (s)he can have the opening measures of Aida played by a string quartet. Perhaps there is even some connection between the fugue that concludes this string quartet and the one that concludes Falstaff. In other words there is more than enough to engage the serious listener in Verdi’s quartet, and the performers on this recording provide the necessary clarity for such a listener to savor fully every note. The Dvořák quartet, on the other hand, is much closer to the comfort zone of most quartet players; and, at least for those of us in the United States, it is a welcome change from the Opus 96 (“American”) quartet in F major. For all of that later quartet’s virtues, too many ensembles allow it to upstage Dvořák’s other quartets; and Opus 51 definitely deserves just as much attention.