The Mariani Quartet on symphonic density in Brahms and lean clarity in Gernsheim. Together with Audax producer Johannes Pramsohler, they cast a glance behind the scenes of their work on the continuation of the award-winning series. A conversation about the wondrous world of intensively experienced chamber music.
Johannes Pramsohler: Let’s talk about leadership in your ensemble. Is there someone who tends to “lead” more than the others, or do you divide it up among each other? How do you work on it?
Barbara Buntrock: For me, good chamber music playing is characterized by everyone leading and as well as following. In an ideal situation, it is a continual interplay that is oriented above all on the score.
Gerhard Vielhaber: There is no hierarchy during the rehearsals. Each of us says what he/she thinks – and also does it. Our interpretation of the respective work develops through the resulting discussions. However, it is never a compromise that comes about, but rather the result of intensive experimentation!
Philipp Bohnen: And also in terms of organization, with four people it is very possible to resolve all significant questions equitably and democratically. We discuss our visions, wishes, and programs and then look to see what we all have time and desire for. It’s great, since we actually complement each other very well, and all four of us are enthusiastic human beings.
And musically, I have to agree with Barbara and Gerhard. We actually always attempt to let the score decide. I am personally also fascinated by the psychology in our ensemble. If there is a passage in which I play the melody on the violin, and it is very clear that I also very much influence the secondary voices through the fashioning of the melody, I sometimes say in the rehearsal: “Guys, I would really rather be carried by you here. Bring out the melody more in your secondary parts.” When we then repeat the passage in question, nothing has measurably changed in the balance or timing, and yet a completely different sound emerges. I love to be carried in that way. My sound is immediately freer, the secondary parts more alert, and tonally we then really blend together completely.
JP: Of course, when you speak of “secondary parts,” it actually becomes clear that you play the “main voice.” (laughs) Who gives the first entrance in a concert? Is there someone who decides: “Here we go!” Or do you mutually have a feeling when the moment has come?
PH: We have meanwhile grown together to such an extent that we actually are not even aware of it. Of course, scores are naturally often “divided” into main and secondary voices. But that does not mean that the main voice always leads. We always play everything together, listen to one another, and feel collectively.
JP: Do you still remember your first concert?
Peter Philipp Staemmler: We played our first concert together in the Stubenhaus in Staufen. This was followed directly by concerts at the Hagnauer Klassik Festival on Lake Constance. Thus, this festival and this concert were our initial impulses. And then – it seemed like immediately after that – began our preparation for the German Music Competition. Our initial phase was thus very intensive from the very beginning. But from the outset, everything worked out very, very well.
GV: There are things that one does not forget, even though it was thirteen years ago. It was exactly for this festival on Lake Constance, the Hagnauer Klassik, that a concert organizer asked me to put together an ensemble, preferably a piano quintet. For logistical reasons, I was able to convince him to put together a piano quartet – and Barbara, Philipp, and Pelle, each of whom I already knew well from other chamber music projects, fortunately consented immediately. And from the first musical moment we knew that we wanted to make music together for the next 200 years.
BB: I also seem to remember that it was somehow immediately clear from the first rehearsal that we fit together well. The ensemble sound and the intonation immediately fell into place, without our having to rehearse a lot. That was a great feeling of pleasure for me. And we also matched very well in terms of personality.
PB: I still remember bits and pieces on and behind the stage very exactly, but above all also the feeling that prevailed between us from the very beginning. This joy of making-music together. And in such a great atmosphere. I had already been friends with Gerhard for many years, and it clicked straightaway on a personal and musical level with Barbara and Pelle.
JP: Why did you decide to combine Gernsheim and Brahms for your first Audax project, and not make two separate projects?
PB: Because then you would not have accepted it. (laughs)
GV: They are works that fit together incredibly well. A Brahms-only project would possibly have been too “fat.” The Gernsheim quartets are somewhat leaner in the overall sound, and also a bit shorter. Therefore, we juxtaposed these two friends and kindred musical spirits, yet dissimilar composers, in this “menu.” Two equal, but yet contrasting “main courses.”
BB: We all found it important that the programs (concert as well as CD) mix the “classics” of the repertoire with lesser-known works. Playing just run-of-the-mill works only rarely endows an ensemble with a musical visage and relevance.
PS: We noticed already in the past that this mixure of classics and unknown works stimulated and was good for us. The focus on the unknown sharpens the eye, or rather the ear, for the known.
PB: I would also say: the mix is what makes it. When one records two equal and contrasting main works together, then it’s hardly surprising that the works mutually influence each other. In general, we listen to the works of both composers with an open mind. Do they have things in common? Where are the differences? But naturally, it is fascinating to linger in this romantic epoch and with these two friends. Since through this direct juxtaposition, the Gernsheim certainly gains intensity and depth, and Brahms’s A-Major Piano Quartet gains in this constellation perhaps a bit of clarity. But the beautiful thing is: everyone may also hear it differently. Each of the four of us, and also each of those who listen to this recording later.
JP: Gerhard, piano quartets are often treated almost like piano concertos. It seems to me that with your Mariani colleagues, you have your very own approach ...
BB: He has no choice with us.
PB: ... don’t worry, those two are always like that; it’s entirely normal ...
GV: As a matter of fact, the music editions that I schlep onto the stage are a few kilos heavier than the instruments of the other three ... But all joking aside: the quantity of notes does not determine the importance of the part. Especially in these romantic piano quartets by Gernsheim and Brahms, the piano frequently has the function of the “stage setting,” of the atmosphere, of the “cosmic background noise,” while the intensive or beguiling melodies are in the strings. Together we try to find a homogeneous sound. None of the four of us want to create a piano concerto, but rather, depending on the passage, a symphony, an art song, a Gregorian chant ...
JP: How do the piano parts in Gernsheim and Brahms differ?
GV: Both composers are characterized by the fact that they really write the soul of the music directly “into the keys”; the piano parts lie very well – although there is a lot to do in all six of their piano quartets. But the result “sounds” immediately – even without the strings. As already mentioned, Gernsheim is less massive, but in turn somewhat more uptempo in many passages with “small notes.” In Brahms, I often think: “This is a string sound, this is a trombone chorale,” etc. In Gernsheim there are frequently passages where I think: This must sound like a piano.
PS: From the outside, I would describe it very similarly. In Brahms it feels more symphonic, denser, deeper. That is what makes the music of Johannes Brahms so distinctive and great. So multidimensional.
JP: Who was Gernsheim? And why is he no longer known today?
GV: I hand over to Philipp. He is Gernsheim’s biographer – although Barbara discovered him for us.
PB: Fortunately, there are still preserved letters that Johannes Brahms wrote to Friedrich Gernsheim. It is not really clear, when and exactly where they met. But it was thanks to Brahms’s German Requiem that a friendship developed out of this relationship. For Friedrich Gernsheim was choirmaster of various choral societies in the Cologne-Bonn area, and programmed the Requiem time and again.
In his letters, Brahms initially asked Gernsheim for program booklets. In later letters, he thanked Gernsheim for the fantastic work that he had done with his compositions. It is interesting to see how the form of address of the letters changed. Before a meeting in Vienna, Brahms addressed Gernsheim with “Sehr geehrter Herr” (“Esteemed Sir”). After the time spent together in Vienna, the letters (or then rather postcards) begin with “Lieber Freund” (“Dear Friend”).
PS: And the reason why we only very slowly hear him again on European stages is that Friedrich Gernsheim was a descendent of a large Jewish family from Worms. The Nazis made sure that Gernsheim’s music disappeared completely from concert life. And, unfortunately, this state of affairs was to last very long. It is high time that this changes.
JP: I was lucky enough to be present for this second recording and was especially fascinated by your process of finding the right sound settings. What were you actually looking for with the sound engineer? I remember that Marie wanted to come as close as possible to the sound of the first, award-winning recording (which I thought was great). At some point, Gerhard opined that it wouldn’t be so bad if you were to find something better.
GV: Did I say “better”? (laughs) I think that for each work one should search for the appropriate sound settings. For me as pianist, it is important that everything is balanced. I don’t want to have to play “cautiously” in forte, but nevertheless make every pianissimo note audible.
BB: The sound settings of the first CD somehow no longer really fit for the program of the second. Perhaps it was the different keys or characters of the two Brahms quartets that ultimately required a different approach.
PB: I remember how it took a really big load off my mind when Marie suddenly came up with the idea for Volume 2 to record me with a different microphone. The sound settings from Volume 1 simply did not fit 100% here. And suddenly, with this different microphone, the violin resonated much freer, which is simply immensely important for the A-Major Quartet.
JP: Aha! So it was the microphone for the “main voice.”
PS: One also continues to develop as an ensemble. Perhaps our sound concept had also changed minimally. But somehow without us having addressed the issue.
PB: But that’s the great thing about working with such great people. All what we do is formulate how we hear ourselves, which is sometimes not very easy. And Marie and her team transform it into the technical realizations. I love these kinds of teamwork.
JP: And to conclude: What can we look forward to in Volume 3?
PS: That is a secret of course! (laughs)
GV: We will contrast Gernsheim’s radiant E-flat Major Piano Quartet with Brahms’s C-Minor Quartet, op.60, his tragic “Werther Quartet” ...
PB: ... maybe another, somewhat different sound setting. Maybe an even closer-knit Mariani Piano Quartet. Maybe also another, newly audible facet of these two great composers. But above all: captivating music.
BB: In any case, I already know that I’m really looking forward to every rehearsal, every concert, and of course the recording itself.
Listen/Stream/Download/Buy album here
Listen/Stream/Download/Buy album here
Photography © Felix Broede