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20th Century Chamber Masterpieces Special Edition

20th Century Chamber Masterpieces: Parts 4 & 5 - Janáček's String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2





Leos Janácek's String Quartet No. 1 is subtitled "The Kreutzer Sonata," after the story by Leo Tolstoy upon which it is based; the title of Tolstoy's story, of course, is taken from Ludwig van Beethoven's ninth violin sonata. This was not the first work Janácek wrote based on this Tolstoy story; a piano trio from 1908 is now lost. According to Josef Suk, who led the premiere of the quartet on October 17, 1924, Janácek wished with this work to protest the tyranny of men over women; in the story, a female heroine seeks refuge from an unhappy marriage in the arms of an amoral seducer, and dies tragically after doing so. Although Janácek did not attempt a line-by-line re-creation of Tolstoy's story, the music clearly suggests certain programmatic correspondences. The first movement seems to depict the heroine's unhappy situation, with a yearning, almost questing theme bracketed by agitated figures; a pastoral theme that follows breaks up and then suddenly cuts off, yielding to an even more passionate version of the yearning theme. The second movement takes the approximate form of a Czech polka, and introduces a theme which seems to belong to the seducer; this theme has to contend with both agitated ponticello and quiet, private music, but keeps popping back up, as suave as ever. The third movement begins with a canonic duet between first violin and cello; the music they play recalls the gorgeous second subject of the first movement of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. Even this music, however, is broken up by spasms of dissonance in the other two instruments, suggesting doubts and fears. These are realized in a violent middle section in which the violin and cello trade hysterical phrases, before collapsing into a somewhat uneasy intimacy again. The fourth movement begins slowly and sadly, and after the music speeds up, it seems all too eager, and winds itself up too tightly. The middle section of the third movement reappears, transformed, and the music reaches a wrenching climax, followed by a pathetic coda. Janácek's passion for the rights of women is as evident here as his typically sensitive use of programmatic material and his impeccable craftsmanship, making the "Kreutzer Sonata" a memorable quartet.

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"I consider the last decade of his life: his country independent, his music at last applauded, himself loved by a young woman," Milan Kundera wrote of Janácek, "his works become more and more bold, free, merry. A Picasso-like old age." The woman was Kamila Stösslová, wife of an antiques dealer encountered during the first World War, 38 years his junior. And while she may have loved him in a general way of being flattered, tolerant, amused, uncomprehending, his passion seems to have been largely unrequited (recent research has shown that Janácek's "love" was, in this case, returned. - Ed.) Thus, a measure of teasing irritant stimulated Janácek's final years, provoking his last and greatest works. One catches glimpses of Kamila in the adulterous heroine of Kát'a Kabanová, the wily wisdom of the The Cunning Little Vixen, and the charismatic but distant allure of the deathless Emilia Marty, heroine of The Makropulos Case, while the virile directness of the Sinfonietta and the barbaric splendors of the Glagolitic Mass are immediate responses to a fascination becoming increasingly obsessive. Though he may have drawn upon an early, now lost, piano trio, the completion of the String Quartet No. 1 -- inspired by The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy's tale of adultery and jealous murder given wing by music -- in just a little over a week (October 30-November 7, 1923) is testimony to an erotic frenzy. By the time of its composition, Janácek was writing to Kamila nearly every day, and in his last year kept a journal devoted to her. Nevertheless, he seems to have attempted to free himself from the tyranny she held over his imagination with the male-dominated From the House of the Dead -- which Kundera rated, with Berg's Wozzeck, as "the truest, the greatest opera of our dark century" -- though it is indicative that he interrupted that work's composition between January 29 and February 19, 1928, to give voice to the String Quartet No. 2, originally titled "Love Letters" but, for discretion's sake was re-christened "Intimate Letters." Its four movements are a drama of volatile, fluctuating emotion, from the opening rush of excited expectation through brusque turns of impetuosity, questioning, and caressing tenderness. The second movement is a passionate meditation veering from doubt to joy, while the third expands the mood of questioning to confront it with a passionate declaration. The final movement is a rondo in which the returns of a frenzied dance enclose shifts from ecstasy to despair, ending with triumphant assertion. Janácek died the following August 12.

[Articles taken from All Music Guide]

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What can I say? I LOVE these SQs! I can't get enough of them. Some of the greatest creations of all-time. Stunning. What do you guys think of these SQs?
 

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Another work or two that are among my favourites of any time and any genre, and among the most intense pieces of music from the last century as far as I am concerned. And they are echt-Janacek to boot, so it would not be remotely daft to use them as an introduction to this unique and brilliant composer (although I would probably go for Sinfonietta as something more user-friendly as an intro!)

I have a decent handful of recordings, many of them by Czech ensembles, but not all. I have recently bought the two Praga recordings done by the Prazak Quartet, and the one you mention above is an absolute stunner, one which might establish itself among my favourites pretty quickly! But the best I know well would have to include the....

Talich Quartet (on Supraphon, it has a little more passion and wild abandon when needed, than the Calliope recording. Incidentally, I am unsure whether or not the Dolce Volta CD is the same, do you have a recording date on that release?)
Skampa Quartet (also on Supraphon)
Pavel Haas Quartet (guess which label!)

I was also highly impressed by the recording by the Nove Energie quartet, which somebody recommended recently somewheres around 'ere, and I have a great deal of affection for recordings by the Smetanas, the Janaceks and the Gabrielis.

These works should emphatically not be the exclusive property of the Czechs, but they are so much more than mere vehicles for virtuosity, and I do have some recordings where the (non-Czech) quartet seems to play them as such; while it can work very well, those immersed in music that's just in their blood, seem to have that extra dimension.
Absolutely...well said!

The Talich recording that is one of my favorites is the remaster/reissue of their recording on Calliope. I don't know their earlier Supraphon recording. At this juncture, I don't believe I need anymore recordings. Here are the recordings I own (in no particular order): Pavel Haas (Supraphon), Gabrieli (Decca), Smetana (Supraphon --- Japanese reissue), Škampa (Supraphon), Talich (La Dolce Volta), Takács (Hyperion), Leipziger (MDG), Panocha (Supraphon) and Pražák (Praga Digitals). I might own a few other recordings, but these are the ones off the top of my head that I remember.

I'm not familiar with the Quartetto Energie Nove recording you mentioned, but it does sound intriguing. That recording also has an arrangement of On an Overgrown Path for string quartet that could be interesting. I'm not too interested in a lot of different kinds of arrangements unless they were either composer-approved or prove to be purposeful.
 

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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
On the Talichs, the Calliope/Dolce Volta is from 1985, the Supraphon recording, which has a bit more passion, well under control of coirse, than the earlier one, is from 1989.

I may be wrong but there might be FIVE sets by the Smetana Quartet, from 1955, 1979, and live from 1985 (Supraphon), and a 1976 set on Denon. But there's also a Czech Radio recording without dates, and they don't seem to fit any of the others timing-wise.....
The Smetana performance I own is the Live from Prague recording. I don't own any of the others. Thanks for the clarification about the Talich Quartet's recordings. I'm glad I got the good one. ;)
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
The 1980s Talich (I have the issue with Kvapil's "on an overgrown path" as filler) is among the more "lyrical" performances. They don't stress the "eerie"/scratchy sounds as some other ensembles do. I also have two of each with the Smetana quartet (I think they did at least 3 of each, some live?), Skampa, and for #2 only: Janacek/DG Artemis, Pavel Haas.
You should definitely check out Panocha and Pražák!
 
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