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Acacia Quartet is exploring music by Günter Raphael (1903-60), a composer admired by Furtwängler. Why is he so little known?
Raphael was a very gifted composer and had a bright career ahead of him. When the Nazis rose to power, he lost his teaching position at the Leipzig Conservatory and was declared a ‘half-Jew’. He was banned immediately from all professional endeavours and his music was forbidden to be performed. On top of that he also contracted tuberculosis, which forced him to undergo numerous operations and spend extended periods of time in sanatoriums. After the war he had great difficulties regaining recognition because of such a long ban.
What are the strengths of Raphael's music?
It has its own, unique voice. Experience of Berlin and Leipzig in the 1920s formed his musical language. He loved sumptuous sounds and polyphony and frequently combined both. That means sometimes you get thick chords, accompanying a polyphonic melody. He also loved big contrasts and long, ongoing sections. He really knew the composition tradition well – there are lots of sections that sound sort of familiar to the ear but in the end are very much in Raphael’s style.
The Acacia Quartet: Lisa Stewart, Myee Clohessy, Stefan Duwe and Anna Martin-Scrase
How did Rafael's style develop across his six string quartets?
I can only talk about four of his six string quartets, Nos 1-3 and 6. I believe there might be sketches of Nos 4 and 5, but they’re currently not in print. The first three quartets were written over a period of six years (1924-1930) and all fall into his early composition period. In this early period Raphael did love thick (sometimes nearly heavy) virtuosic writing in the traditional style of the time. He knew exactly how to write for the string quartet. String quartet No 6 was composed (or at least finished) in 1954 and shows a very different style. This quartet is part of his late period and is not only shorter and more distinct, it’s also more polyphonic and actually easier to listen to, as every line makes perfect sense and there’s not one note out of place.
The Nazis never eliminated him, despite his father's Jewish heritage. How did he escape?
Raphael was declared a ‘half-Jew’ and had to stop teaching in Leipzig in 1934. He was granted individual exceptional permissions to perform until 1937 but after that there were no longer any exceptions. In 1937 he contracted tuberculosis, which meant sanatorium visits and long hospital stays. During this period, well-intentioned physicians repeatedly prevented his deportation. In 1944, his condition worsened and he was transferred to Bad Nauheim where he received a lifesaving operation. Soon after the Nazis were defeated, so the tuberculosis, which killed him in the end, also saved him.
You’ve been invited by the Raphael Foundation to perform and record three quartets in Berlin. How did that come about?
As always in life, this came about because of a personal connection. In 2015 Lisa, my wife and first violin of Acacia Quartet, and myself traveled to Germany to visit my mum. While we were there she contacted a former colleague of hers, Fredrik Pachla (chairman of the Raphael Foundation, Berlin), as she had heard about the passing of his wife (Christine Raphael). They had a long conversation about losing loved ones (Lisa’s mother had recently died) and palliative care. At the end of the long phone call Lisa mentioned Acacia Quartet and our interest in new and forgotten composers and Fredrik suggested that we should consider playing Raphael’s string quartets. Soon after, a big parcel arrived at my mum’s house with all available CDs of Günter Raphael’s music and all the scores and parts of his string quartets. We countered by sending Fredrik all of Acacia’s CD’s as well as links to live recordings. In the end he offered us two concerts and a CD recording of Raphael’s string quartets Nos 1, 2 & 6.
For your "Heading to Berlin" concerts in Sydney you are pairing Raphael with Mozart and Schubert. What's the connection?
The connection is Fredrik Pachla from the Raphael Foundation. As he’s continuing to head the foundation in memory of his wife, Christine Raphael (who was an extraordinary concert violinist), this project is as exciting as it is reminiscent. All the pieces we’ll perform in our Raphael concerts in Australia and Berlin are personal favourites of his and it was he who suggested the pairing. As it turns out, his taste is absolutely impeccable and not only are all the pieces masterworks, they actually all complement each other. Fredrik’s suggestions met immediate approval from all of us.
Berlin is such an exciting place right now. What do you love about the city and what will you do with your 'down time'?
We haven’t been back for 20 years, so that means we’ll have to use quite a bit of time to get to know this wonderful city again. I can’t wait to explore and hopefully we can attend some concerts while we’re there.
What plans does the quartet have after the Berlin adventure?
The Berlin adventure actually doesn’t end in 2017, as we’ll be returning in 2018. The Raphael Foundation has already extended their invitation for 2018 and we’ll be returning to record the String Quartet No 3 and the String Quintet for string quartet and additional viola in 2018. Very exciting is that Emile Cantor, violist of the Orpheus Quartet and my old teacher, has agreed to record the quintet with us – what a privilege!