LEOS JANACEK: Chamber Works = Idyll for Strings; Suite for two violins, viola, cello and double bass; Znelka I. – Sonnet for Four violins; String Quartet No. 1 ‘The Kreutzer Sonata” – The Wroclaw Ch. Orch. Leopoldinum/ Ernst Kovacic – DUX

by | Sep 26, 2014 | Classical CD Reviews

LEOS JANACEK: Chamber Works = Idyll for Strings; Suite for two violins, viola, cello and double bass; Znelka I. – Sonnet for Four violins; String Quartet No. 1 ‘The Kreutzer Sonata” – The Wroclaw Ch. Orch. Leopoldinum/ Ernst Kovacic – DUX 0946, 68:46 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:

Leos Janacek (1854-1928) was the last of three great Czech composers whose music spanned the transition from the 19th to the 20th century. Smetana used the Bohemian folk song as a basis for his nationalistic music and Dvorak was a gifted melodist who was a proponent of late-Romanticism. Janacek’s early Romantic works changed after 1888, when he became a scholar of the roots of his native countrymen’s music, incorporating Moravian folk songs and speech patterns into his compositions. His remarkable career blossomed after his opera Jenufa made its premier in Prague in 1918, at age 62. In the last twelve years of his life he composed a series of operas and tone poems that gained him international recognition.

Janacek grew up in a small town in Moravia, laboring in relative obscurity as a teacher and choirmaster in Brno. He became director of a new organ school that later became the Brno Conservatory. Three of the works on this disc owe more to the influence of Dvorak than to Moravian speech patterns. The earliest, Znelka I. Sonnet for four violins (1875) is a four-minute exercise in composition whose melodic beauty makes it more than of passing interest for the listener. The Suite (1877), here performed by string orchestra, is Janacek’s first serious work, a free flowing multi-movement work that’s colorfully scored, varied in mood, and cast in the structure of Baroque dances. However, purists of the time might have objected, since the Sarabande is in quadruple time and the Allemande is not very dance-like.  Nevertheless, it’s a lovely work. The second Adagio is serious, very beautiful but sad—almost Mahlerian in its expressiveness. The short third movement (Sarabande) has been described as ‘Mona Lisa’s’ smile translated to sounds. The concluding Andante ends on a reflective but more energetic note.

Written a year later in 1878, the Idyll honors Janacek’s idol Dvorak—who was present at the first performance. Structural and rhythmic patterns are similar to Dvorak’s, but there are echoes of Janacek’s later stylistic characteristics—the 5/4 metre in the third movement, for example. Much of the Idyll contains short phrases or motifs, a method he used often in later compositions. The lovely Adagio has a hushed melodic beauty and the Scherzo is a delightful dance.

The motivating factor for the proliferation of masterpieces that Janacek composed in the last twelve years of his life (1916-28) was a passionate but never consummated love affair with Kamila Stosslova, a young wife and mother who was thirty-eight years younger than her pursuer. Music lovers owe Stasslova a debt for her wise and considerate response to the composer’s ardent letters. Janacek’s unrequited love was channeled into the female protagonists of his great operas and in the expressiveness of his instrumental music. The String Quartet No. 1, ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ (1923), reflects the plot of Tolstoy’s novella (a romantic triangle) but Janacek’s music reflects his sympathy with the woman’s suffering, rather than Tolstoy’s moralistic attitude toward the adulterous wife. Composed in little more than a week, it expressed his admiration for women who were ill-treated, in addition to his fervor for Kamila. You can hear the conflict between the characters in the first movement: the contrast between the bickering husband and the idealized beauty of the woman caught in the struggle, and the ‘fate’ theme that reappears later. In the second movement the violinist-lover arrives with a seductive dance-like motif, interrupted by the anxiety of the wife’s internal conflict. The third movement juxtaposes the jealous husband’s rage and the all-compassionate, albeit contrite, sadness of the wife. The finale is a desolate cry of a woman who shudders and manically tries unsuccessfully to extricate herself from fate—and ends her life.

Ernst Kovacic’s arrangement for string orchestra obscures the contrasting emotions of the original version for quartet. It’s like watching the story unfold from the over-reverberant musical fog of a misty San Francisco evening. There’s no way a string orchestra has sharpness of attack to express the violent rage of the jealous husband, and the response of the wife is lushly compassionate, pathetic rather than heroic. It’s pretty, but emotionally vapid. The lush violin section of the last movement mutes the cry of desperation, and the necessary slower tempos of a full string section can’t replicate the astringent passion of a quartet. The Wroclawska Chamber Orchestra plays well but the reverberant sound further obscures emotional clarity.  Try the Pavel Haas Quartet version on Supraphon for the real thing.

—Robert Moon

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