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This week's string quartet: Janacek's String Quartet #1 ("Kreutzer Sonata")
The recording I listen to: Talich Quartet

Composed in eight days in praise of women and love, Janacek was under the spell of the woman who inspired the Second String Quartet when he composed this little gem in 1923. Its artistic lineage includes Tolstoy and Beethoven. Not too shabby. Is it programmatic? Is it a blow by blow account of the details of Tolstoy's short novel, or a more generalized rendering of the emotions presented in the tragic story? Janacek provided this assertion in a letter he wrote to a young woman (Janacek sure got around): "I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata."

Regardless of the inspiration and any extra-musical references, good music must stand on its own feet, and this one surely does. As concise as a Haydn quartet and not quite as emotionally schizophrenic as its big brother, the "Intimate Letters," the music is unmistakably Janacek. His distinctive voice produces some remarkable sonorities and textures from the opening chords, and the opening motif returns to provide the conclusion to the whole piece.

Comparative listening is especially helpful with this one. I've heard different recordings that sound like different compositions! This recording by the Hagen Quartet is quite different from the recording I listen to, by the Talich Quartet:

Can you identify any Beethoven references in the Janacek? Here's Beethoven's truly incredible "Kreutzer" Violin Sonata:
 

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Great choice, although I find it more schizophrenic and breathless and the 2nd quartet more "rounded ;)
And I always thought that the relation to the Beethoven was completely spurious and I do have doubts about the relation to the Tolstoy novella (I once attended a concert event where they played both pieces or at least parts thereof, don't remember exactly, combined with readings from Tolstoy). Maybe it's a love-hate relationship*, but the general tendency of that Tolstoy novella is misanthropic, misogynous and misomusic. As I understand it, Tolstoy was a bit of womanizer, especially when younger, but later filled with deep regrets and self-loathing for is uncontrollable horniness (There is an even more brutal novella "The devil" written at about the same time as Kreutzer Sonata) , I am not quite sure about his relation to music.
 

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Great choice, SP. Both of Janacek's quartets are excellent but the 2nd is a huge favourite of mine with this one it's underrated little brother. There are stacks of recordings of this quartet and I've already done this one in my blogs but I'll still have a relisten to see if I missed any. As regards the Talich Quartet this was a special quartet for them and they recorded it 3 times (1985 Calliope, Supraphon 1990 and 2004 La Dolce Vita) and each recording is pretty different (I have a special affinity for one of these, in particular). If you are a BBC magazine reader you will know that apart from their commercial release the BBC recorded the Pavel Haas live, back in 2011 (at St Lukes in London) and gave this cd away with its magazine, last year. All I'll say is that you need to hear that CD (pic below) ! Nuff said.
 

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I rate this work very highly and I thank Starthrower for introducing me to such a fine piece of music.
Henry, thanks for taking time to write that post during your busy week. Hopefully I'll get around to picking up their Alpha CD in the coming year. On to Janacek, a composer I really enjoy! I have the Takacs, and Schoenberg Quartet recordings which I'll listen to this week.
 

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Great choice, SP. Both of Janacek's quartets are excellent but the 2nd is a huge favourite of mine with this one it's underrated little brother. There are stacks of recordings of this quartet and I've already done this one in my blogs but I'll still have a relisten to see if I missed any. As regards the Talich Quartet this was a special quartet for them and they recorded it 3 times (1985 Calliope, Supraphon 1990 and 2004 La Dolce Vita) and each recording is pretty different (I have a special affinity for one of these, in particular). If you are a BBC magazine reader you will know that apart from their commercial release the BBC recorded the Pavel Haas live, back in 2011 (at St Lukes in London) and gave this cd away with its magazine, last year. All I'll say is that you need to hear that CD (pic below) ! Nuff said.
Merl, is that Pavel Haas recording commercially available other than through purchasing the magazine?
 

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Hey nice choice @SearsPoncho !!! I love the 2 Janacek string quartets ...
I own the Pavel Haas recording, which I like very very much, and I really value the Tákàcs Quartet's interpretation of the piece too. Looking forward to it!!!

I thought the Chin last week was a nice discovery, I don't perticularly go for such kind of string quartet output usually, but that's the great thing about being part of a community of music lovers. Locally I regularly go to the concerts the conservatory organises for its students and there you get to know new pieces too ... same thing happens to me on here ;).
 

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Sorry for being quite busy last week. I listened to ParaMetaString several times, I was amazed by the sounds and unusual colours. I will need some time to grow into the piece. However: Great choice!
 

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Great choice, SP. Both of Janacek's quartets are excellent but the 2nd is a huge favourite of mine with this one it's underrated little brother. There are stacks of recordings of this quartet and I've already done this one in my blogs but I'll still have a relisten to see if I missed any. As regards the Talich Quartet this was a special quartet for them and they recorded it 3 times (1985 Calliope, Supraphon 1990 and 2004 La Dolce Vita) and each recording is pretty different (I have a special affinity for one of these, in particular). If you are a BBC magazine reader you will know that apart from their commercial release the BBC recorded the Pavel Haas live, back in 2011 (at St Lukes in London) and gave this cd away with its magazine, last year. All I'll say is that you need to hear that CD (pic below) ! Nuff said.
I had a listen to this old BBC music mag performance. They are clearly well into the vibe but it just confirmed my suspicion that the vibe ain’t me. It just seems like an overblown romantic effusion, like having a drunk teenager emote in the living room.

I want it played by English gentlemen, Janacek with a stiff upper lip. No passion please, I’m British.
 

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I had a listen to this old BBC music mag performance. They are clearly well into the vibe but it just confirmed my suspicion that the vibe ain’t me. It just seems like an overblown romantic effusion, like having a drunk teenager emote in the living room.

I want it played by English gentlemen, Janacek with a stiff upper lip. No passion please, I’m British.
Although it was recorded in 2011 the BBC disc isn't 'old' at all. It was only released this year. Are you sure that we're talking about the same disc cos this Pavel Haas recording certainly isn't buttoned-up. Having seen the Pavel Haas live and heard all their recordings I'm not sure they're capable of being 'stiff'. 😲
 

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Although it was recorded in 2011 the BBC disc isn't 'old' at all. It was only released this year. Are you sure that we're talking about the same disc cos this Pavel Haas recording certainly isn't buttoned-up. Having seen the Pavel Haas live and heard all their recordings I'm not sure they're capable of being 'stiff'. 😲
The Pavel Haas isn’t stiff, on the contrary, they are too passionate for me - I want one which is buttoned up.
 

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The Pavel Haas isn’t stiff, on the contrary, they are too passionate for me - I want one which is buttoned up.
I haven't got around it yet but from the time when we had the 2nd quartet I recall the 1985 Talich as comparably relaxed (as they are on the same disc, I think I listened to both pieces back then). Unless I am overlooking anything, I have only one non-Czech recording, Vogler/RCA. Otherwise Smetana 1966 (Testament), 1976 (supraphon), Talich 1985. Skampa 2001. I lack the Pavel Haas, as their Janacek 2 is coupled with one of their namesakes quartets.
 

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I haven't got around it yet but from the time when we had the 2nd quartet I recall the 1985 Talich as comparably relaxed (as they are on the same disc, I think I listened to both pieces back then). Unless I am overlooking anything, I have only one non-Czech recording, Vogler/RCA. Otherwise Smetana 1966 (Testament), 1976 (supraphon), Talich 1985. Skampa 2001. I lack the Pavel Haas, as their Janacek 2 is coupled with one of their namesakes quartets.

Yes it is, and so is The Schoenberg Quartet. I just don’t think it’s good as music. Played with passion it seems almost embarrassingly adolescent, and played more objectively it’s like . . . not interesting
 

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I'm enjoying the hell out of this quartet, SP, and I totally agree when you say, "I've heard different recordings that sound like different compositions!" I think that's true more so than any other quartet I've heard here.

I have the Panocha and that's been my favorite so far... but then I heard the Prazak for the first time this week. (Haven't heard the Takacs yet because, as you know, Hyperion is not down with streaming.)
 

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When I started listening to classical music many moons ago, I read lots of nonsense which asserted that Mahler took tonalism as far as it could go, and the atonal music which followed (i.e., the Second Viennese School) was the inevitable and only response. Really? How about Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Martinu and, yes, Janacek, among an almost infinite amount of other composers?

As for performances of Janacek's 1st, I prefer the more aggressively red-blooded ones which bring out the full spectrum of timbre in vivid sound.
 

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I've had a very enjoyable week revisiting the recordings of the 'Kreutzer Sonata' quartet that I have on my shelves, I didn't venture into the world of streaming as I don't want to be tempted to part with more cash (little will power).

With reference to the connnection to the Tolstoy short novel I like the thought* of Milan Škampa of the Smetana Quartet, who believes 'directly from the score we can trace the outlines of the plot, follow the story as it unfolds, even discover the degree of Janáček's ideological deviation from Tolstoy's concept' he also suggests that the four movements may depict the phases of a Greek tragedy - expostion, peripeteia, crisis and catharsis. Now I'm not knowledgable about Greek tragedies but I can see the connection of the last two movements of the quartet to 'crisis and catharsis'.

The quartet itself has, to my ear, little time for formal structure and is largely based around passion and varying emotions. It is how the performers relate to and describe these p&e's that gives us the various different takes on the piece.

I believe there are three broad styles I can detect in the recordings I have and have listened to - firstly, those that emphasise the contrasts of emotions, often spikier at times, secondly those that play down the fiery elements within the emotions and finally those that strike a balance between the two.
The Calidore & Pavel Haas (BBC MM) recordings I would place in the first category, the Schoenberg and Talich (2004) in the second and the Pavel Haas (Supraphon) and Takács in the final.

As to which is best, I honestly can't choose - by one turn I love the darker hued more civilised take of the Talich recording, the next I revel in the enthusiasm and drive of the Pavel Haas live recording but then again the Takács find little nuances that others don't highlight, the lilt they achieve at the start of the second movement for example allied to the fact they seem to confirm the 'crisis' going on in the third movement to great effect. Fact is I wouldn't want to be without any of them.

(* taken from the Schoenberg Quartet recording Chandos booklet).
 

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I think Malx hit the nail on the head with his summation of the range of styles. I'll link my original blog review (from last year) below if anyone's interested but I did have to edit it as I'd missed 2 accounts out completely (it happens - I do make an occasional faux-pas) but both have now been included. I am a fan of the firier recordings but there are still plenty of the more relaxed recordings that I like too (eg Belcea). As I always say, if they can convince me with their vision I'm happy, however they read it. As much as I like many Hagen recordings I'm not a fan of either of their Janacek quartet accounts (that was probably the first Janacek disc I bought apart from the Stamitz). As long as you found a recording that you like that's all that matters. This is a quartet that deserves more recognition (I'm just as passionate about Prokofiev's 2nd). Apart from Beethoven or Mendelssohn recordings I have more recordings of the Janacek quartets than any other quartet (my cd versions are in the pic below but I have double that on the hard drive).

 

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Good to be reacquainted with this work, not listened to it in a while. I have only 3 recordings in my collection, Hagen, Takacs, and Quatuor Debussy. I shall be sticking to the latter this week. I like their breezy but rich sound. Sometimes I find other quartets can make the music feel slightly heavy in places.

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