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Janáček's String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata", was written in a very short space of time, between 13 and 28 October 1923 and was revised by the composer from 30 October to 7 November 1923.

The composition was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata. (The novella was in turn inspired by Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9, known as the "Kreutzer Sonata" from the name of its dedicatee, Rodolphe Kreutzer.)

"I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata", Janáček confided in one of his letters to his young friend Kamila Stösslová. In this quartet there is psychological drama containing moments of conflict as well as emotional outbursts, passionate passages rushing towards catharsis and to final climax.
preparing to write the quartet, Janáček annotated a copy of Tolstoy’s work with specific ideas about the relationship between the sonata and the novella. However, the composer made no effort to trace any kind of dramatic program in his quartet. Rather, it presents and expands emotional and psychological states to which various musico-dramatic touches have been added. To some listeners, the opening of the third movement of Janáček’s quartet is a veiled quote from the slow movement of Beethoven’s sonata.
It's a strange work with none of its four movements in sonata form. What we get instead are motifs and rhythms begun, repeated or combined. There's numerous changes of tempi and metre (61 and 25 respectively). Throw in some sul ponticello, heavy use of harmonics and ostinatos, trills, pizzicati and muted strings and you get a very different sounding quartet.

Here's a performance from the Janacek Quartet


Recommended

Diotima
M. Nostitz
Endres
Kuss
New Helsinki
Dante
Brodsky
Petersen
Zaide
Smetana (BBC 1975)
Navarra
Talich (1985 & 2004)
Sebastien
Schoenberg
Janacek (1964)
Leipziger


Highly recommended

Jerusalem
- excellent, gripping playing but sometimes they push a tiny bit too hard (eg 3rd movement).
Melos (HMundi) - refreshingly fresh-faced and boisterous account which grew on me as it went on.
Talich (Supraphon 1990) - best of the Talich recordings for me. Colourful and lyrical. Some might prefer their gentler 2004 recording but I prefer their hotter approach here.
Calidore - the Calidore (from their excellent 'Resilience' album) produce a performance of beauty that still addresses the spiker, more aggressive virtues of this quartet. This is a highly cohesive and well-argued performance.
Cecilia - driven and intense (but not as much as the Melos), some may think this a bit much (but not me).
Arianna - tight, powerful and wistful.
Lindsays - Big tone, expressive and dramatic.
Wihan (2013) - much better than their 90s recording and deeply intense.
Skampa - more rustic in approach with a cracking 4th movement.
Belcea - lighter, more reserved but compelling.
Quatuor Debussy - this fine account, judged on sound alone, would be a first choice for me however ensemble is not quite as tight as I'd like. Still impressive.

The Special ones

Henschel
- 'classy' sums up the Henschel marvellous account. If you like the Takacs then this high quality playing will suit you down to the ground.
Vlach (1969) - a volatile and darker feel permeates this recording and the 1969 sound is very realistic.
Acies - close to the very top, the Acies play with strength and their 3rd movement is a tour de force.
Panocha - Stunning playing captured in lovely sound. The Panochas may be more subtle and reserved but this one oozes class.
Mandelring - its the recorded sound on this one that appeals the most (stunning) but the playing is very impressive too.
Pavel Haas - it would be at the very top but for me the PHs miss that tiny degree of poignancy. Utterly superb, dramatic playing elsewhere.
Smetana (1985) - more quirky and idiomatic than their other recordings, the Smetana's view of SQ1 is highly individual and appealing.

Simply the Best (better than all the rest)

Prazak
- possibly the most perfect of recordings in that it contains equal amounts of angst and drama so this has always been my go-to recording.

Martinu - if the Martinu's 2nd quartet is impressive their 1st is even better, IMO. Similar in style to the Prazaks the Martinus really plumb the emotional depths of the quartet brilliantly.

Takacs - another winner. The Takacs capture the changes of rhythm and mood perfectly. Texturally this is another masterclass and Dusinberre and Schranz play those tremeloes so effortlessly it's a joy to behold.

Energie Nove - if you want a higher octane recording then this is the one. It's never rushed, though, just constantly shifting gears. A classic.

Pavel Haas (BBC Music) - a late addition to the party and this may be the best one here, now. If the Pavel Haas' studio account is very impressive bit lacking that little something then this one is their Goldilocks recording. Absolutely enthralling freebie disc from the BBC Music magazine in a lovely acoustic. The live recording just adds to the drama. Stellar!


My other reviews:
 
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