SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in e minor “From Mt Life”; JANACEK: String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata”; String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate letters” – Takacs String Q. – Hyperion

SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in e minor “From Mt Life”; JANACEK: String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata”;  String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate letters” – Takacs String Q. – Hyperion CDA67997, 71:29 (10/9/15) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:   

The celebrated Takacs Quartet inscribes (16-20 August 2014) three Slavic works of great personal intensity, each an expression of its composer’s sense of loss and emotional anguish. From the outset of Smetana’s 1876 autobiographical E Minor Quartet, the sonic separation between Geraldine Walther’s throaty viola and Edward Dusinberre’s first violin proves irresistible and ineluctable, given the opening theme’s serving as a “fate” motif. The secondary theme represents, according to the composer’s program, his yearning for the rewards and heights an aesthetic life and romantic love could confer on him. The ensuing Allegro moderato alla polka captures the composer’s innate love of the dance, his answer to the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. The slow movement, Largo sostenuto celebrates fondly Smetana’s first wife, Kateeina Kalaeova, who died of tuberculosis in 1859. The layered entries and unisons add a feverish intensity to the proceedings, perhaps a too-graphic recollection of his wife’s suffering in what had been their tenth year of marriage. The “symphonic” sound achieved here by Takacs – richly undergirded by Andras Fejer’s resonant cello – reminds us how unconventional Smetana’s approach to the quartet medium, given his natural penchant for the full orchestra. The Vivace begins with what should be triumph, personal and professional, until the high E shatters Smetana’s world with his oncoming deafness and eventual institutionalization. The voice of Karoly Schranz’s plaintive second violin has only just added its own luster when the tragic curtain falls. The quartet ends with a mixture of fatal awareness and wistful recollection of past glories, with both worlds’ fading away.

Janacek’s Quartet No. 1 (1923) takes its extra-musical text from the Tolstoy novella of a woman’s moral dilemma, caught between a brutal husband and an adoring violinist, the latter of whom she met at a soiree that featured Beethoven’s A Major Sonata, Op. 47 “Kreutzer.” Eventually, the betrayed husband murders his wife. Tolstoy story suggests the music conveys a detrimental moral influence.  Janacek fashions his own opus as a series of confrontations, darkly dramatic and passionately lyric, often expressed in obsessive, modal figures. Janacek avoids conventional, classical forms and opts for constantly shifting tempos and metric pulsations. Musical texture, moreover, like ponticello effects, high harmonics, and mutes, bring their own eerie psychology to this hothouse score, in which music itself sits like an incubus – Ave Fuseli! – on the hearts of the principals. The various, quick allusions and quotes from Beethoven’s own work confirm the tragic ethos of this work, convinced that music simultaneously tempts and redeems us.

Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 (1928) comes directly from his protracted love for and correspondence with Kamila Stoesslova, whom he had first met at a spa in 1917. Estranged from his invalid wife, Janacek maintained a “Platonic” love – several of his letters imply something more – for this young woman, and his second quartet carries the epithet “Intimate Pages” rather than the original, explicit title, “Love Letters.” For both of the Janacek works, the Takacs Quartet provides ample fire, and an often “organ” sonority that elevates whatever mortal passions expressed into an idealized topography of the soul. Obviously, Janacek’s “Dante” had found his muse, his Beatrice. The spa-town where he and Kamila had met, Luhacovice, itself glows with a preternatural heat in the second movement. The Takacs penchant for fierce ostinati finds a ripe vehicle in Janacek, with cello and first violin in heated exchange in the second movement.

Brilliantly played and ferociously captured in sound – courtesy of engineer Simon Eadon – these Slavic testaments of personal longing should grace every Takacs enthusiast’s private collection.

—Gary Lemco

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