JANACEK String Quartets 1 + 2 Emerson

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LEOS JANACEK

Streichquartette
String Quartets
No. 1 »Kreutzer«
No. 2
»Intime Briefe · Intimate Letters»
+ Martinu: 3 Madrigals
Emerson String Quartet
Int. Release 02 Mar. 2009
1 CD / Download
CD DDD 0289 477 8093 9 GH
Emerson String Quartet with Czech chamber music including the key piece from The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Track List

Leos Janácek (1854 - 1928)
String Quartet No.1

Emerson String Quartet

Bohuslav Martinu (1890 - 1959)
Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola Op.H 313

Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton

Leos Janácek (1854 - 1928)
String Quartet No.2 "Intimate Letters"

Emerson String Quartet

Total Playing Time 55:12

. . . they show that they have thought things though, since the abrasive "sul ponticello" interruptions register all the more shockingly. I also admire their choice of the Martinu Madrigals as a filler, and have nothing but praise for the fullness of tone and the expressive focus that Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton bring to them, or for DG's fine recording quality throughout the disc.

It is, of course, the whole point of classical chamber music that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And thatżs certainly true in the exultant Emerson Quartetżs dynamically charged and brilliant performance of the phosphorescent Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 of Leos Janacek that the ensemble is justly proud of championing żfor more than 25 years.ż . . . they are hugely demanding works with slashing orchestral power and acres of opportunities for tonal wobbling . . . Good performances . . . of two of the greatest 20th century string quartets . . .

The Emerson Quartet's outstanding mastery of this music is best illustrated in the way they handle the constantly changing textures and expressive psychology, as in the third movement of the "Kreutzer" Sonata in which the attempts to establish dialogue-like canon are continually interrupted by scratchy upper harmonics. Also included is a delightful reading of Martinu's Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola.

By any standards these superbly recorded performances stand as high as the marvellous insightful readings of the Skampa Quartet.

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 . . . The music and its performance are thoroughly winning . . . This is a marvelous performance . . .

Im Mittelpunkt stehen die beiden, mit kristalliner Reinheit gespielten Quartette von Leos Janácek, die unter ihren wissenden Händen prima die Balance zwischen Bekenntniswerk und absoluter Themenvariierung halten. Eine reizvolle Duo-Ergänzung sind die renaissancehaften Drei Madrigale für Geige und Bratsche von Bohuslav Martinu.

Das Emerson String Quartet zelebriert die vertonten Gefühlsausbrüche mit all der Schärfe und Brillanz, die sie unwiderstehlich machen. Doch den bedrängten Zuhörern wird eine Atempause gegönnt. Zwischen Janaceks Quartetten erklingen Bohuslav Martinus Madrigale für Violine und Viola (1947), die eine belastbare Brücke von der Renaissance zum Jazz schlagen.

Wenn die vier Amerikaner spielen, liegt Energie in der Luft, ist Stringenz angesagt, Kühle eher denn Wärme, trotz glühender Saiten. Und letztlich muss man eher von Leidenschaft sprechen als von Emotionalität . . . in ihnen lodert Feuer, aus ihnen spricht Temperament . . .

Feverish performances of Janacek's two string quartets, fiercely original early 20th-Century masterpieces whose intensity, drama and subtext all suggest operas without words.


Chamber Music by Czech Masters

    The great Czech, or more specifically Moravian, composer Leoš Janáček went on writing prolifically right up to his death at the age of 74; and it was in the last decade of his life that he produced his most astonishingly original and profound music. From this period came four of his greatest operas, Katya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, The Makropoulos Case and From the House of the Dead, together with the orchestral Sinfonietta, the Glagolitic Mass, and several chamber works including the two string quartets.

    Like the first and last of the operas named above, the first of the quartets reflects Janáček's abiding love of Russian literature: it bears the title of Leo Tolstoy's 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata. The work was apparently based in part on an earlier piano trio with the same title, composed in 1908, performed in 1909 and several times more in the following 13 years, but never published and subsequently lost or destroyed. After a careful examination of the evidence, including a surviving page of sketches for the trio and the drafts of the quartet, the Janáček scholar Paul Wingfield has established that the first and third of the four movements of the quartet were adaptations of the first and last of the three movements of the trio. This would explain the speed with which Janáček was able to compose the whole of the quartet in no more than two weeks in the autumn of 1923. The work was first performed by the Bohemian Quartet in Prague in October the following year, and published in 1925.

    In Tolstoy's novella, a husband describes how he murdered his wife after she had embarked on an affair with a musician - kindled when they played together Beethoven's A major Sonata for piano and violin, the “Kreutzer". Although Janáček did not leave a detailed programme, the four highly compressed movements of the quartet seem to trace the outlines of this story. The first is built largely out of two alternating ideas, which perhaps represent the wife's unfulfilled longings and the husband's increasingly cruel indifference. The second movement is in polka rhythms, with themes that may suggest the swaggering lover, the husband's growing jealousy, and his wife's mounting ardour. The third begins with a canonic theme adapted from the first movement of the Beethoven sonata, each phrase-end echoed in shuddering tremolandos sul ponticello (on the bridge); it develops into what sounds like a passionate love scene. The finale reintroduces and develops the initial yearning theme, as it moves towards the dramatic climax of the narrative. If this interpretation is correct, it is significant that, while Tolstoy tells the story entirely, even obsessively, from the husband's point of view, Janáček explicitly takes the wife's part. So his quartet ends not with the disgust and despair, which pervade Tolstoy's novella, but with a defiant assertion of his heroine's individuality and independence.

    Janáček may have been attracted to return to the subject of The Kreutzer Sonata, and to adopt a female viewpoint, by the overriding obsession of his last decade: his passionate if one-sided love affair with the much younger Kamila Stösslová, the wife of an antiques dealer. This found its final and most overt musical expression in his Second Quartet, which he composed in just over three weeks in early 1928, in a pause during the composition of his last opera, From the House of the Dead. He was able to hear a private performance by the Moravian Quartet in May that year; but the work had its first public performance only in September, a month after his death. It was published posthumously, in an edition, which has now been shown not to correspond to his hastily written manuscript in many significant details.

    Janáīek dedicated the quartet to Kamila, and originally conceived its viola part for the Baroque viola d'amore or “love viola", presumably more on account of its name than because of its somewhat reticent tone quality. Because his love had largely been conveyed in writing, he named the work first “Love Letters" and then “Intimate Letters". He told Kamila that it was “my first composition which sprang from directly experienced feeling". And indeed it has - even more than the First Quartet - an Expressionist urgency and spontaneity, with shifting key centers, incessant fluctuations of tempo and free-flowing thematic development. The first movement, Janáīek told Kamila, describes his first sight of her at the spa town of Luhačovice in the summer of 1917. It begins with two sharply contrasting motifs, respectively declamatory and ghostly, which recur throughout the movement, and are joined later by a more expansively lyrical idea; but the main unifying element is an angular accompanying figure, which crops up in many different guises. The second movement begins as a set of free variations on its opening melody, but later introduces a second theme, a dance in quintuple time, and also brings back the twin motifs of the first movement. The third movement, the composer wrote to Kamila, expresses his longing that she should have his child. It opens with gentle rocking rhythms, as a prelude to a passionate melody, which is interrupted by bursts of furious activity. The finale, Janáček wrote when the work was completed, sounds “with a great longing - and as if it were fulfilled": it is a rondo on a folkdance-like main theme, with contrasting lyrical episodes; an insistent figure in contradictory triplet cross-rhythms gradually comes to the fore, and has the last, vehement word.

    Because Janáīek's career lasted so long, it overlapped with that of his much younger compatriot Bohuslav Martinů. But, while Janáček rarely left Czechoslovakia, Martinů spent much of his life abroad, first in Paris, later in the USA, and finally in southern Europe. He composed his Three Madrigals for violin and viola in New York City in February and March 1947. It was the first of two works he wrote for the brother-and-sister duo of Joseph and Lillian Fuchs whose playing he had admired in one of Mozart's duos. (Lillian Fuchs was also a distinguished teacher of the viola, her pupils including the Emerson Quartet's Lawrence Dutton).

    The title reflects Martinů's long-standing love of the Renaissance madrigal, which for him represented freedom from conventional formal structures, a range of textures including genuinely equal-voiced counterpoint, and above all a treatment of rhythm which was not tied to regular bar lines or four-square phrasing. In the words of his friend and biographer Miloš Šafránek, it was “the key to a new kind of polyphony, sound, free and natural". The first of the three movements is a lively two-part invention, which maintains its momentum throughout, and even increases it in a faster coda. The slow movement is in a free, fantasia-like form, beginning with muted trills and tremolandos, passing through virtuoso scale and arpeggio passages to emerge, unmuted, into a more relaxed episode, and culminating in a loose-limbed singing melody utterly characteristic of the composer. The finale is dancelike, with a middle section, which slows up to a brief, expressive Moderato episode; in the outer sections, Martinů's syncopations against a regular pulse occasionally suggest not only the Renaissance madrigal but also 20th-century ragtime.

    Anthony Burton
    1/2009