Notes and Editorial Reviews
Perhaps John McGrosso is right when he says that audiences get Janácek’s quartets right away, that “they are immediately captivated by the stunning moods and compelling, personal narrative of these great works.” Music that once sounded harsh, strident, and discordant to our ears is now embraced as standard fare on recordings and concert programs. Clearly, the music hasn’t changed; we have. Repeated exposure breeds familiarity and comfort.
Janácek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet, however, is not meant to breed comfort. The story it tells is intended to be discomfiting; its narrative is one of the basest of human emotions—jealousy, cruelty, and murderous rage. Janácek
translates these tumultuous and terrifying passions into music of extreme emotional turbulence and flux. In the words of Eugene Drucker of the Emerson Quartet, the composer achieves his ends by means of “frequent reiterations of propulsive rhythms that generate tremendous intensity; melodies that have a speech-like, often declamatory quality, expressing pathos and ecstasy with equal fervor; and a sonic palette that is enormous. At climactic moments, the collective sound of the quartet far exceeds what one might have expected from four string instruments.”
As I listen to the “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet, I’m constantly reminded of how original and daring a work it was for 1923. The “Intimate Letters” Quartet came five years later, in 1928, and, in its own way, is an equally passionate work. In 1917, the 63-year-old Janácek met Kamila Stösslová (1891–1935), then a vibrant young woman of 26, and 38 years Janácek’s junior. He fell desperately in love with her, a love that was to remain unrequited. Yet over the next 11 years, until his death in 1928, Janácek wrote some 600 love letters to her, pouring out his heart and soul. You’ve got to hand it to him for persistence, if nothing else. He’s lucky Kamila didn’t cry “stalker,” and have him slapped with a restraining order, but she seems to have been understanding, if not terribly responsive.
Janácek distilled the contents of his 600 letters into the four movements of his “Intimate Letters” Quartet, a score filled with all of his feelings for Kamila—the ups and downs of hope, joy, longing, and dejection. In a sense, Kamila was to Janácek what Nadezhda von Meck was to Tchaikovsky, without the financial arrangement. Janácek was trapped in an unhappy marriage, yet he knew that Kamila was but an old man’s fantasy; she became his imaginary lover and muse.
Both of Janácek’s string quartets have become part of the mainstream repertoire and are represented on record by practically every leading quartet ensemble. So, the Arianna is faced with a good deal of very formidable competition. It has been a while now, but I was quite impressed by the Dante Quartet’s account on Meridian, reviewed in 31:5, and I’ve always liked the Hagen Quartet’s way with these works on a recording now recycled on Newton Classics.
If there’s a drawback to the Arianna Quartet’s Centaur CD, it’s the unfortunately short timing. Most versions of Janácek’s quartets I’m familiar with—and those would include, in addition to the above-mentioned Dante and Hagen, the Juilliard and Emerson Quartets—fill out their discs with something extra. It seems a shame these days to produce a CD that’s essentially half empty.
On the other hand, if you’re a “half-full” kind of person, I can tell you that the Arianna’s readings of these two quartets project all of the white-hot emotional intensity one could want, while still managing to maintain a rare silkiness of tone in music that so often pushes players into scraping, scratching, and hacking. The Arianna proves that execution
express the most extreme states of emotion while doing so with beauty and poise. A special luminosity and even warmth marks these performances, which explains why the Boca Raton audience was so immediately receptive to the music. The Arianna Quartet plays Janácek’s quartets with a special emphasis on, and flair for, storytelling. Just listen, for example, to the way in which the players “narrate” the eerie sul ponticello tremolo passage in the second movement of the “Kreutzer Sonata” Quartet. I can honestly say that I’ve never heard it sound quite so spectrally disembodied.
The Arianna Quartet’s Janácek illustrates a point I’ve made before, which is that as musicians become more familiar and more comfortable with once “difficult” works, they rise above and beyond the executional mechanics of just getting it right and begin to discover the music that’s in the notes. The Arianna has discovered not just the music in the notes but the real story behind them. This is a wonderful addition to the Janácek discography, one that I highly recommend. Whether you are new to these works or already have half-a-dozen other recorded versions on your shelf, these performances are special.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
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