Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2.
String Quartet No. 1
Jerusalem Str Qrt
HARMONIA MUNDI 902178 (71: 14)
Two Czech opera composers placed together with their autobiographical string quartets is at first glance a logical idea, although few labels seem to have had the same idea as Harmonia Mundi, who promote the pairing as Czech music’s father and his heir. That point is debatable—they are so different as personalities—but the
programming is neat. Although it is a shame Smetana’s Second Quartet couldn’t be included, this neat gathering of three titled quartets makes sense, being all late-period works for their composers and tackling personal tragedy head on. After establishing themselves on Harmonia Mundi with discs of Dvorák and Mozart, the young Jerusalem Quartet is making a clear statement of intent, venturing into such edgy, brutal territory.
Premiered in 1879 Smetana’s First Quartet, “From my Life,” is an intensely personal and programmatic glimpse at key stages of his life. The opening’s youthful exuberance petering out to a couple of nihilistic plucks sets the scene for this regretful look back in Smetana’s old age and ensuing deafness. The performance here of the second dance movement is fittingly sickly and faltering in its reminiscence of youth’s abandon, a
without the cumulative violence. A futile note of wit is struck in the folk-tinged verve of the final movement before its descent into tragedy.
The jolt into Janácek’s raw sound world, with his sexually charged distillation of Tolstoy’s adultery novella
The Kreutzer Sonata
in his First Quartet, is shocking. Obsessive and sensual, the opening movement’s aching portrait of the heroine is vividly conveyed, as is the following depiction of the lover; a jaunty gait, interrupted by passages of shivering menace, the melodic lines broken and destabilized at every turn. The journey from the florid overlapping to the inevitable dying breaths of the work comes across very well here.
His infatuation for a younger woman undimmed, Janácek’s Second Quartet, “Intimate Pages,” written in his final year, is a work of barely contained frustration and yearning. Although the smell of sex is less apparent than in the “Kreutzer Sonata,” the obsessive repeated figures and quicksilver explosions continue in this very public revealing of his mind, with any gaiety (such as the final movement’s initial entry) swiftly unraveling into despair. All three works are a nest of pitfalls and conflicting emotions for any performer, yet they require very different approaches. Both Janácek’s works live in the moment, the smell of lust and frustration, a world away from Smetana’s regretful looking back, and it is a contrast that the performances here respect.
The Jerusalem’s playing is formidable and brittly precise, and their range of moods and dramatic expression is phenomenal. Tempos are brisk but feel logical, and if there is lack of sentiment and warmth (such as with the Janacek Quartet’s accounts on DG), these three intensely personal, cerebral statements do respond well to such spotlit scrutiny. Suitably, Harmonia Mundi’s sound is vivid, close and very well defined. Notes are superb despite an unconvincing argument for linking these rather disparate composers. Although personal and creative turmoil runs through the program like an infection, the generational gulf between the two men is never more emphasized than here. A brilliant but uncomfortable album.
FANFARE: Barnaby Rayfield
Works on This Recording
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