Barbican Quartet – Janáček, Tabokova, Schumann – GENUIN

by | Jun 28, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

Manifesto on Love = JANÁČEK: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”; TABAKOVA: The Ear of Grain; SCHUMANN: String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41; Wenn ich ein Voglein wär, op. 43/1 – Barbican Quartet – GENUIN GEN 24878 (68:33) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

The rubric for this consistently passionate release from GENUIN (rec. May and November 2023) derives from the romance of the aged Leoš Janáček and his beloved Kamila Stösslová, embodied in the 1928 Second String Quartet “Intimate Letters.” This convulsive and eccentrically lyrical work has earned the appellation “Manifesto of Love,” with its multifarious and contradictory energies. Janáček wrote Kamila some 700 letters over the course of an eleven-year, extra-marital relationship, to which Kamila conceded as beyond Platonic, only in the last year of the composer’s life. The members of the Barbican String Quartet: Amarins Wierdsma and Kate Maloney, violins; Christoph Slenczka, viola; and Yoanna Prodanova, cello – having been named the 1st Prize Winner of the ARD International Music Competition in Munich, Germany, received from GENUIN the opportunity to produce a CD, gratis, as part of the ARD Music Competition Edition.  

The first movement of the Quartet: Andante – Con moto – Allegro Janáček claimed to have been “written in fire,” the soaring impulses attributed to Janáček’s “impression when I saw you for the first time.” Every element imbued with obsessive desire the Barbican manifests in their gripping performance, a searing account from first to last. At a performance given by the Moravian Quartet, Easter 1927, Janáček experienced “cries of joy. . . of terror after a lullaby.” Such convulsions of desire mark this rendition, captured in brilliant sound by Recording Producer Michael Silberhorn. Janáček conceived the viola – originally the viola d’amore – to serve as the embodiment of Kamila’s voice and character, altering the instrumentation to achieve clearer balance. The contrapuntal second movement: Adagio – Vivace – embeds further the viola as Kamila’s voice as the convulsively grueling, clashing expressive lines conclude in an anguished B-flat minor that Kate Maloney’s second violin has driven home.  

The third movement creates a vision of Kamila in a series of duets, particularly those between violin and viola, violin and cello. Foreign and strange harmonies inhabit this movement, Moderato – Andante – Adagio, the pictorial suggestion of Kamila’s ardent heart. Amarins Wierdsma has many potent moments, especially when she climactically intones the initial duet theme against jagged, chorale-laden chords, akin to Falla’s “Dance of Terror” from El amor brujo.

The spirit of the dance invests the last movement, Allegro – Andante – Adagio – but it may well invoke a dance of love-death. While a misty waltz inhabits the center of the movement, perhaps a fond recollection, a la Proust, of idyllic intimacies, the music reverts, cruelly in stunning tremolo and dissonances, to the bitter truth, Poe’s “Nevermore,” here running through high, jagged shards of the initial dance until all hopes vanish. Perhaps, Janáček has found kinship with Hector Berlioz of the Fantastic Symphony; for certainty, the Barbican delivers a “symphonic” performance.  

Dobrinka Tabakova (b. 1980) composed The Ear of Grain (2022) as a result of a commission by the ARD International Music Competition in Munich. As a test of the various ensembles’ dexterity it proves effective, especially in its demands for shifting colors over sforzato, ostinato, and tremolando gestures. The inspiration for this seven-minute challenge comes both from a painting of the same name by Joan Miro and a fairy tale, The Ear of Corn, from the Brothers Grimm. Whether this tension-laden piece harbors any allegorical intentions, the work carries less a lasting, melodic effect than a vivid impression of effect in an assault mode.

In 1842 while in Leipzig, Robert Schumann, separated from his touring pianist-wife Clara, embarked on a detailed of the Beethoven string quartets. No less influential were Mozart quartets and several contemporary chamber works in the medium from Mendelssohn. Convinced that Clara Schumann’s name invoked the interval of the fifth, Schumann turned his Quartet No. 3 into a love-letter, having the first violin announce the two-note interval immediately. More adventurously, in the manner of Beethoven, Schumann opens his Andante espressivo – Allegro molto moderato with a degree of harmonic ambiguity through six measures of conflicting emotions. The main theme settles in major, although the cello line from Prodanova injects a persistent, agogic unease through the texture. This rhythmically restive quality inhabits the second movement Assai agitato, in which upbeats and downbeats interchange. Alternating 3/8 and 2/4, Schumann exploits his innate admiration for Bach – and Beethoven’s Op. 133 Grosse fuge – with darkly hued imitative counterpoint that adumbrates passages in Benjamin Britten. Here, the Barbican player again prove their explosively compelling style.

Schumann’s capacity to create haunting adagios shines forth in movement three, Adagio molto, in which second violin Kate Maloney emerges from the opening drone texture with an ostinato pattern that dominates the movement’s progress, mostly set in warmly fervent barcarolle rhythm that ends potently, Tempo risoluto. The moments of duet texture reveal the F-A-E motif, “free but lonely” that Brahms co-opted for his Third Symphony. The razor-sharp intonation alone from the Barbican players invokes the passion we heard in Janáček. Finally, Schumann’s last movement, Allegro molto vivace – Quasi Trio allows Schumann some license to dance, once more alternating the major and minor modes of his tune, which likes to exploit accented upbeats. This blend of intense drama and frivolous irony, typical of Schumann’s bi-polar nature, manages to demonstrate a deft talent for a medium made immortal by the Classical masters Schumann admired.

The recital ends with violist Christoph Slenczka’s transcription of Schumann’s 1843 song, “If I were a little bird,” the words by Herder, describing the lover’s desire to fly to his beloved; but he remains alone, in communion instead, heart to heart. As a fitting epilogue to this “Manifesto,” it compresses all into one eternal sentiment.

—Gary Lemco

More information through GENUIN

Album Cover for Barbican Quartet - Manifesto on Love