JANÁCEK Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata”; No. 2, “Intimate Letters.” MARTINU 3 Madrigals for Violin and Viola • Emerson Str Qrt • DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8093 (55:10)
The Emerson notes on the booklet’s back page: “We’ve championed the Janácek quartets for more than 25 years, but never recorded them before.” It does have a very personal view ofRead more this music, squeezing more color and more spice from the score of “The Kreutzer Sonata” than I have heard from other groups. It never hesitates to bear down hard on the strings, even to the extent that the sound turns harsh—an interpretive freedom that quartets of lesser reputation may feel they cannot afford to indulge in. The muscular attacks yet colorful tone, the clarity of individual lines yet solidity of ensemble, all under perfect control, are impossible paradoxes solved without the slightest suggestion of conquering obstacles; rather this is just the way the music should be, played as if there were no other way. I’ve heard the Emerson’s Janácek in concert, yet cannot recall a performance of “The Kreutzer Sonata” at this level.
Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton play Martinu as an entr’acte. The Three Madrigals are a relaxing change from the two overpowering Janácek works, yet similar enough to maintain the mood: the harmonies, the brief melodic fragments, the incessant tremolos are Janácekian, but Martinu looks in other directions as well: the Renaissance, Bach, even Joplin. Three pieces in varying moods—Poco allegro, Poco andante, and Allegro—hint at Classical structure. The music and its performance are thoroughly winning; a wide left-right separation of the instruments adds not only to clarity but to a feeling of dialogue and response.
On disc and in recital, “Intimate Letters” has succeeded Dvorák’s “American” as the Czech quartet; it must have been on half such concerts I’ve attended over the past decade. One of its fascinations is that there are so many ways to interpret it, from a gentle romantic epistle to a wild psychotic outcry. The Emerson employs both ideas while avoiding either extreme—the music is always under control and never becomes bathetic. As with the First Quartet, the immediate impression is how strongly it captures Janácek’s unique sound world. This is a marvelous performance, very much like one I heard the Emerson give in concert. Only a live performance by the Pražák has impressed me more, something that group could not repeat on disc. This CD joins Janácek recordings by the Smetana Quartet in 1976, no longer available together on one disc, and the (new) Talich Quartet in 2004, on Calliope, at the top of my list.