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I remember when I first started collecting LP records, trying to find recordings of Beethoven's Late Quartets that I liked. I finally found an LP by the Vegh Quartet on Astree/Naive that I felt (at last!) did justice to the music (it was one of their later stereo recordings). So, I proudly took the LP over to my girlfriend's apartment at the time, and excitedly played my new discovery for her. She was a professional musician, who played string quartets on a regular basis with her friends (when they had the time--& what a joy it was to listen to live SQs in her living room). She had studied with Felix Galimer at Curtis, and played chamber music with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, at his asking, so, she was a very fine musician. & she was always open and interested to hear the recordings that I would bring her (it was part of how I wooed her). However, this time, as the Vegh's LP played on her turntable, she suddenly began to squirm in her chair & look very uncomfortable, and within just a few minutes, she begged me to stop playing the LP. I asked her why? and she said that their ensemble was terrible--not at all together, and she couldn't stand to listen to it anymore. She couldn't believe they were professional musicians...

At a later time, I again played the Vegh Quartet for her, sneakily, without telling her who it was--this time one of their stereo Bartok LPs. She seemed to like that a little better. But her cat, who always sat right in front of the speakers--as it was a very musical cat, immediately left the room. Clearly, the cat, who was normally so content & relaxed to lie in front of the speakers, or sit within the middle of a live string quartet, didn't like Bartok or the Veghs.

After my Vegh/Beethoven 'wooing' fiasco, I remember asking a composer friend what he thought of the Vegh Quartet? and if he would recommend their Late Beethoven, and he replied, that the 1st violinist Sandor Vegh was too old, and no, he didn't recommend them. (Instead, he recommended the Alban Berg Quartet's studio recording, which had just come out on LP.)

Much later, I bought the Vegh's earlier 1950s mono Beethoven recordings on CD, thinking that the younger group would be better. But I soon found out that the earlier mono recordings had the same 'loose' ensemble problems as the later recordings. Therefore, I assumed that was simply how the Veghs approached music. In other words, it wasn't because they were older players on the later recordings. I think of this every time I hear someone say that the Vegh's Beethoven cycle is more "rustic" than other groups. Well, I suppose that's another way of putting it.

The only time I ever saw my girlfriend get so irritated again, while listening to music, was when I played the Lindsay Quartet's Beethoven for her... Again, she asked me to please take it off the turntable in no uncertain terms. When I protested that the British critics had rated the Lindsays highly, she replied that the British critics needed to get their ears checked.
 

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Okay - I'm pretty sure it was a stereo recording - it was on the Naive label.

In which case I listened to two of those, and enjoyed both - but again, I think my preference was for the Smetana.
The 1952 Vegh recordings come in either this Haydn Society set or in this recent combined set (with the early Vegh Bartoks) that's actually an amazing deal for 10 CDs, but it's mono all the way:

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The 1972-73 set, in stereo, was originally recorded by Valois, rereleased by Naive (twice):

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Both are on Spotify (and probably other services) if you want to compare them.

And as I may have hinted at in my most recent post, if you see the stereo Vegh in a used CD store, buy it and let me know because I'll pay you double!

EDIT: Josquin, just saw your post after I finished this. Bring back any memories? (Although I realize the LP covers were a little different...)
 

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OK, so it's my pick and I'm going with a biggie with around 70 recordings in the catalogue. Yes, it's finally time to address one of the elephants in the room. It's been coming for a while and seeing as it's one of my favourite quartets (if not my favourite), and I have a silly number of recordings of this quartet, I thought it was time to let Janacek's String Quartet 2 'Intimate Letters' loose.

Its a great quartet, as many of you know, and I'll post my feelings about ways of performing it soon but I have already done an extensive round-up this one which I completed a month ago. The link is below but you may just want to investigate yourself first and compare notes later. A 'certain' critic reckons that only the Czech ensembles can do this justice but he's talking through his backside (although a large number of Czech performances are at least very good and some are at the summit, tbf) as there are some killer non-Czech performances. So off you go! Here's the link to my preferred recordings followed by a explanation of the quartet that I nicked from elsewhere, online, but I thought it was pretty good and saved me writing lots about it.

https://www.talkclassical.com/blogs/merl/3484-janacek-string-quartet-2-a.html

"Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) composed his String Quartet No.2 in 1928 when he was around 74 years old. The string quartet was one of two string quartets commissioned by the Bohemian Quartet in 1923. Janáček subtitled his second string quartet "Love Letters" and then re-titled it "Intimate Letters" (referring to hundreds of letters that Janáček wrote over many years, expressing his love to a young, married woman named Kamila Stösslová). Janáček's wife Zdenka stated that Stösslová was unimpressed with Janáček and although Stösslová did not return Janáček's love and kept him at a distance for many years, the composer pursued her obsessively and relentlessly for over a decade and she was the inspiration for several of Janáček's works, including this quartet.

In his letters to Kamila, Janáček calls the String Quartet No. 2 his "first composition whose notes glow with all the dear things that we've experienced together. You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving … but everything's still only longed for …" and described his second String Quartet as "beautiful, strange, unrestrained, inspired, a composition beyond all the usual conventions".

Although this quartet is structured in four movements, you will not hear the kinds of traditional forms that classical composers commonly used for their string quartets. Instead, the four movements could be compared to scenes in an opera, each telling a different story about Janáček's feelings for Kamila. There is continuous development of various rhythmic and melodic fragments of sound. Janáček begins each of his four movements with these tempo markings:

1. Andante (moderately slow, walking tempo)
2. Adagio (slow)
3. Moderato (moderate pace)
4. Allegro (lively and quickly)

However, the movements are difficult to distinguish by tempo markings alone, as Janáček changes tempos many times during each movement, for example:

1 Andante - Con moto - Allegro
2 Adagio - Vivace - Andante - Presto - Allegro - Vivo - Adagio
3 Moderato - Adagio - Allegro
4 Allegro - Andante - Con moto - Adagio - Tempo I

The form used within each of the four movements also does not follow conventional structure and development although the fourth movement could be described as a kind of sonata/rondo form that features two contrasting and recurring thematic motifs. The first motif is heard at the opening of the fourth movement and the second motif takes the form of a leaping, trilled note melodic fragment.

Throughout the quartet, Janáček may present a theme or theme fragment and then immediately interrupt its development with sudden exclamations of sound from other instruments. Janáček stated that the first movement depicted the impression he had when he first saw Kamila; the second movement depicted his experience seeing her over a year later; the third movement was intended to "dissolve into a vision that resembles your [Kamila's] image;" and the fourth movement was intended by Janáček to represent his great longing for Kamila and imagined fulfillment.
"
 

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Great choice, Merl, this is one of my favorite quartets as well! And you're right that there are many great recordings available, by both Czech and non-Czech ensembles.

But I'll leave it to you all to argue over those details.
 

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A year and a half in and I think we can finally say we have covered all of the most famous string quartet composers! Its absence has been so conspicuous that I could have sworn there was a tacit agreement that nominating it would be taboo. But I’m certainly not complaining - it’s one of my favorites as well and Janáček is just such a composer of quality - his piano music, mass, and operas are just solid gold in my estimation; shame he wasn’t very prolific. Here’s the obligatory Trout recommendations:

1. Janáček Quartet (1963)
2. Smetana Quartet (1976)
3. Škampa Quartet (2001)
4. Talich Quartet (1985)
5. Pavel Haas Quartet (2007)
6. Hagen Quartet (1988)
7. Smetana Quartet (1965)
8. Pražák Quartet (1997)
9. Panocha Quartet (1995)
10. Mandelring Quartet (2009)
 

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Great choice! I had considered the Janacek as well when it had been my turn.

Back to op.130.
A main difference to suites is that they have usually alle movements in the same key. Divertimenti are not. The quartet follows a key pattern and there are probably relations between important secondary keys of the large outer movements and the whole.

Movements: B flat - B flat minor/major - D flat - G - E flat - B flat

main secondary keys for the
first mvt.: G flat
Fugue: G flat and A flat
Rondo: F and A flat

This is a fairly wide compass of sometimes rather distant keys for Beethoven. op.127 and op.132 are more restricted/conventional (A flat =subdominant for the slow movement in op.127, F lydian and A major in op.132).
It also almost completely avoids the most common secondary key, the dominant (F) and the major secondary keys of the outer movements do not appear in the middle movements.

So I'd guess it is supposed to be varied and colorful but not "random". But I am not sufficiently versed in harmony and stuff to further look into this aspect.
 

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There's a few things I tend to look for in any performance of Janacek's 2nd. These are not always dealbeakers if I don't hear them but make a big difference to my enjoyment of the quartet.

1st movement - the cello and viola. Their role often gets overlooked with the greater prominence of violins but Janacek clearly wanted them to convey his emotions in the opening movement. Key to any performance is huge passion carried by both. The viola role often reminds me of a heart fluttering.
2nd movement - this is an adagio that should sound loving and never at all slightly melancholic. The conversational elements need to be especially strong without the violins dominating too much.
3rd movement - my favourite movement and the lynch pin of any great recording. There is a dealbreaker here in the anguished cry roughly 3 minutes in. If it doesn't sound like an impassioned cry and reminds me more of someone shouting at the ice-cream van to come back then I can happily ignore the rest.
4th - it must dance and skip with slavic charm. Its not necessary to be a slavic ensemble but just to recreate that folk-dance bounce is essential to rounding this incredible quartet off. Tempi is not the be all and end all here but very slow finales tend to lose momentum.

So the key for me is passion, technical excellence and a feeling of 'let's go for it'. The best recordings hit for the boundaries and tend to sound very spontaneous, the worst tightly controlled and stiff. It's a quartet made up of musical fragments bound together by Janacek's engaging rhythms. Over-do the drama and it can sound highly nuanced and artificial (eg. Dorics) underplay the passion and it sounds emotionless and dull (eg. ABQ). As I said, this is possibly my favourite SQ and I've listened to more recordings of it than I can shake a stick at. I hope y'all find a recording that resonates with you as much as my top choices have done over the years.
 

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Just listening to the Škampa Quartet now. Very exciting account. The other two I own are the Pavel Haas and Jerusalem Quartets. They will get some play later today. Oddly I don't have the Tákacs. They are usually my first choice.
 

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I have only one recording of the Janacek quartets by the Schoenberg's paired with Szymanowski on Chandos and it's one of my favorite chamber music discs. The Schoenberg's have a beautiful sound and they tend to emphasize the poetic aspects in music with their graceful approach but sometimes they strike me as a bit too laid back on certain pieces. Merl's pick is a good opportunity to focus on Janacek No.2 alone and get to know it better. I took note of the blog list and I look forward to multiple listens of this quartet throughout the week. I'll definitely check out the Talichs, and a few others.
 

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I adore both of Janacek's quartets but the 1st and 2nd are different beasts, even though they share some of Janacek's quirks of not following themes in the traditional ways and using 'interrupting' voices. The first is more of a wordless story, almost operatic in its conception, the 2nd far more emotional, fractured and intense.

I've read quite a bit about Janacek in the past and he seems a complicated, intense, fascinating, contrary and difficult man to get near - highly anti-authoritarian to his mentors yet demanding and uber-strict to his pupils. He loved women (as we know) and was, allegedly, an early supporter of women's rights and social justice . Many of his peers often mentioned his staccato-type speech, obsession with speech-melodies and volatile temper and say this affected much of his work. He hated Smetana's music and worshipped Dvorak.

When I did my comparisons I tended to listen to the 1st and 3rd movements of the 2nd quartet quite intently as there's so much going on with the inner dialogue. Janacek's obsession with this younger woman must have seriously screwed him up as there's so much passion and inner-torment in the 2nd quartet. Without this obsession we wouldn't have this masterpiece to listen to today.
 

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This quartet has one of the most fascinating backstories of any piece we’ve done. Unrequited love for a married woman 40 years his junior; passionate enough to (according to Wiki) model three characters in his operas off of her, devote the great Glagolitic Mass to her, and characterize the prominent viola part (originally viola d’amore, interestingly enough - I wonder what inspired him to use such an archaic instrument) in this quartet as the object of his affections. Is each movement a different “intimate letter?” Is the third movement really, as Milan Skampa suggests, a lullaby to “the son they never had?” I’d say this is almost as interesting as Dante/Beatrice and Clara/Robert in terms of artistic romances. This music is incredibly passionate; the perfect object for the “speech rhythms” which the composer perfected in all of his ouevre, and the folk idioms ooze a perfect sincerity. Would anyone be able to tell that this is a series of “love letters” otherwise? Maybe not, but at least we have a composer-designated nickname and story rather than the silly speculations which are often hoisted upon what is surely meant to be “pure music.”
 

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Here's one of those in depth lecture/performance videos akin the one I uploaded for Berg's Lyric Suite but this presentation includes healthy doses of humor which makes it highly enjoyable as well as informative.
 

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If ever, ever, ever, ever, ever there was a quartet that needed Burbage's Friday summary, providing historical context and detailing the relationships, romances, and influences of all relevant parties, this is the one. Forget the Bat-signal; we need the Burbage-signal! Hope he reappears for this one.

I agree with Merl's assessment that this is not a quartet for the timid or those preoccupied with impressing others with subtlety and nuance. I want a recording that goes for the gusto and never lets the foot off the pedal. I found that in the Talich recording, and the audio quality is excellent.

By the way, Janacek's music is so unique that I can't ever imagine confusing his music with that of another composer. I'm not even sure how I would describe or classify it. It's interesting that whenever I look up a Janacek recording on Amazon, the additional recommendations they suggest are usually modern, and frequently atonal composers. Even the mighty Amazon hasn't figured him out. There's no composer I can think of who would provide an obvious reference point for comparative analysis. The only one thing I can think of, especially for this quartet, is Romantic Schoenberg. Imagine if the Schoenberg of the Verklarte Nacht never took that left turn and kept writing more extreme episodic, tone poem-like music of maximum emotionalism, without completing abandoning tonality, while increasing the level of outrageous expression and...nah! That doesn't really describe it either.

Thanks, Merl! This is one of the jewels of the string quartet repertoire.
 

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Imagine if the Schoenberg of the Verklarte Nacht [sic] never took that left turn and kept writing more extreme episodic, tone poem-like music of maximum emotionalism...while increasing the level of outrageous expression and...
But...that's exactly what Schoenberg did do! No "left turn" was involved at all.

...without completing abandoning tonality...
Oh. Well, in fact he didn't quite completely abandon it... This was an emergent consequence of the above...

But I do very much agree: Janáček is unique, inimitable.
 

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can you hear this in op 130?
(sorry for reviving Beethoven, but wanted to quickly answer this. Looking forward to Janacek)

Only in a loosey-goosey, philosophical way with no evidence to back up my claims.
Here is one way I might describe this:
The first movement has the hallmarks of being a large scale opening sonata movement. Except it is unsuccessful in establishing Bb major as it should (here is where I would include 50 pages of musical examples to prove my point, but let's skip that for now). The second movement, even for a fleeting scherzo type movement of Beethoven's is just too short and insubstantial to balance this first movement. And it shifted us to Bb minor. OK. As long we get right back to Bb major we'll be OK. What's this? Db major? It seems wrong, but it is a lovely, relatively uncomplicated gracious andante and we settle right in to this new key. Next, shocking change to the brighter key of G major and even more pleasant, easy-going maybe even banal dance tune. The way this movement is structured, it is possibly the most convincing in establishing its key. We have arrived at our new home and everything is so much fun and relaxing.
So far, the piece has had a journey from serious sonata to increasingly frivolous music in increasingly distant keys.
I guess one could see this as establishing our second theme.
Then the cavatina comes along and, with its gravity and its gravitational pull seats us firmly in Eb major. A satisfying ending. But it can't be over because it is a slow movement and it is in the wrong key. So let's call this the end of the exposition.
According to my scenario, we will need one heck of a development to get us back on track and erase the confusion about whether this is a serious sonata or some light-hearted dance pieces so the last movement is, of course, a fugue, the most serious of all music and, just like any self-respecting development, it goes through many harmonic and thematic confusion before finally taking us home to Bb major. Ironically, the ending seems neither serious nor completely satisfying. Maybe it was taintied by too much Alla Tedesca early on. Whatever happened to the triumphant endings of the middle period?

These are just my lazy impressions of this piece, not a summary of my dissertation. Idle speculation. But I feel like late Beethoven is often connected by its very unconnectedness. Both within movements and in the complete work.
 
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