Emerson String Quartet: Intimate Letters = JANACEK: String Quartet No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata”; MARTINU: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola; JANACEK: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” – Emerson String Quartet – DGG B0012770-02, 55:26 ****:
Recorded at Queens College, Le Frak Concert Hall, May-June 2008, the two Janacek Quartets bring to posterity music the Emerson ensemble has championed for twenty-five years. The 1923 Quartet, named after Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, attempts to capture emotionally the unbridled passions that ultimately lead to obsessive violence. Janacek’s audacious tonal language and “special effects,” like the agonized tremolandos played sur ponticello in the third movement–whose canonic motif derives from Beethoven’s Sonata in A, “Kreutzer”–proceed with an organic cleanliness that almost dissects the score yet maintains its headstrong intensities. Patterned loosely on Smetana’s E Minor Quartet “From My Life,” the structure of the Janacek also has a polka for a second movement, but the colors stem from a world inhabited by Edvard Munch, a passionate devil‘s dance. The third movement achieves a stringent intensity close to the world of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite or the blistering fires in Liszt’s response to Dante. The modal language of the finale bespeaks a galloping spirit of defiance, a bittersweet pride in voluptuous recollections, a Moravian love-death to rival the same pathos in Wagner.
Martinu’s Three Madrigals (1947)–realized by Philip Setzer, violin and Lawrence Dutton, viola–pay homage both to the composer’s admiration for Renaissance forms and the brother-sister duo, Joseph and Lillian Fuchs. A decidedly free spirit roams through these pieces, especially in the adjustments of rhythm, which eschews traditional bar-lines. Even so, hints of Dvorak run through the active pages of the first madrigal, its polyphony startling and richly layered in the manner of a Bach invention. Muted trills and tremolos from both players open the second madrigal, a “fancy” or fantasia–even a troubadour’s serenade as we find in Debussy’s Cello Sonata–in nuanced ornaments and short, expressive phrases. Martinu fuses Renaissance dance rhythm to elements of jazz and ragtime to evolve the last madrigal, rife with syncopation and breezy energy.
Janacek’s Second Quartet (1928) easily qualifies as his most autobiographical chamber work–like Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite–composed to celebrate his love for a married woman, Kamila Stoesslova. The Intimate Letters (or Pages) opens with figures assertive and eerie, as though the specter of the beloved haunted him from his first vision of her. The thumping bass lie in David Finckel’s cello carries the obsession, the viola and violin carrying out dialogues that burn with the fever of an old man who wants back his youth. This is Janacek’s version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. Throughout the piece a four-note “fate” motif at once declaims his willing slavery and mocks him. The fires of the second movement, variants containing a quintuple-rhythm dance, proclaim the lovers Francesca and Paolo. The third movement’s rocking figure–a dream of a Janacek child carried by Kamila–might pay febrile homage to Faure. The spirit of Beethoven reigns in the triplet cross-rhythms of the finale, a rondo with lyrical episodes that proclaims that destiny and desire have found fulfillment, at least in art. All beautifully, dutifully realized by the Emerson Quartet in what stands as one of the supreme moments in their recorded legacy. The high dialogue late in the last movement might have accompanied Ida Kaminska and Jozef Kroner in their last sequence in Kadar’s The Shop on Main Street.