SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor “From My Life”; JANACEK: String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata”; String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Pages” – Jerusalem Quartet – Harmonia mundi HMC 902178, 71:14 (1/14/14) *****:

The Jerusalem String Quartet: Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violins; Ori Kam, viola; and Kyril Zlotnikov, cello – have made splendid inscriptions (rec. May-June 2013 at Teldex Studio Berlin) of three Czech staples of the chamber music medium. The searing sound of these  inscriptions comes to us courtesy of Tobias Lehmann and Wolfgang Schiefermair.

Smetana’s 1876 E Minor Quartet “From My Life” helped to solidify his repute as a founding father of Bohemian music, virtually utilizing his personal hearing affliction, tinnitus, as a source of creative inspiration. The Jerusalem Quartet seems to exploit the autobiographical pathos of this quartet, whose opening Allegro vivo appassionato combines dramatic urgency with visceral passion. Viola player Ori Kam makes that somber, tragic line evident as the musical persona becomes aware of impending misfortune. The second movement’s quasi-polka invokes the composer’s love of dancing and of the partners in his exertions. The raspy energy of the Jerusalem realization brings an earthy vitality to the grand gestures that rush us about the dance floor.  The directness of expression of the Largo sostenuto, especially in its resonant cello and first violin line, provides a depth and authenticity to the love song, a paean to the first love of Smetana’s life, who later became his wife. The strongly dissonant episode that interrupts the orison exhibits the contrapuntal influence of Schubert. In the furor and enthusiasm of life, the tragedy strikes in the fourth movement, in the high-pitched harmonic in the first violin. The music eventually dies out in a series of quietly desperate whimpers, much as it would and did in the case of Smetana himself.

In 1923, the Bohemian Quartet as led by Josef Suk requested of Janacek two string quartets. The first of these, the Sonata No. 1 “The Kreutzer Sonata,” emerged in eight days, as “note after note fell smoldering from my pen,” as Janacek expressed it. Psychologically as well musically charged, this piece depicts a suffering woman, seduced and then murdered. The modal, powerfully expressive music eddies and swirls in grim passionate figures. Alexander Pavlovsky’s violin introduces the seducer, and nervous figures that become more explicit as they depict their first encounter as the woman, unhappy in her marriage, succumbs to temptation. The low chords predict the tragic end foretold by Tolstoy, who had himself been moved by the Beethoven Violin Sonata. A direct quote from the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata confirms the crisis, as the woman feels love, while the husband seethes with jealousy. Convulsive figures invoke sobs, while a hymn-tune might offer sanctuary from a vengeful spouse. The last movement poses a contradiction: even as the husband destroys his wife, he realizes her humanity: “For the first time I saw a human being in her.” A kind of “fortunate fall” plays out, since human dignity attaches to both slayer and victim. The weird confluence of galloping passages and heroic doxology marks the intimate paradox of visceral passions.

Janacek’s Second Quartet “Intimate Pages” (1928) evolved (literally in twenty days) in the course of his protracted platonic love affair with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman forty years Janacek’s junior. Once more, violist Ori Kam dominates, since her instrument speaks for Kamila. The rhythms and textures of this music shift constantly, a refection of the mercurial and volatile relationship some 600 letters reveal about their spiritual kinship. Much of the first movement spends its time in high pitches, often on the instruments’ bridges. Passion and the anguish of denial merge in a bitter struggle as elegiac as it is painful. The second movement indulges in romantic and domestic possibilities, urgent and poignant, Kamila’s having given birth to a son. Along with fierce repetitions and demented riffs, a 5/8 tune conveys a degree of jovial spirits. A mixture of “tenderness and brutality” was Milan Kundera’s assessment of Janacek’s music. More mercurial shifts in tempo and temperament characterize the third movement, Moderato Andante Adagio, built from two themes whose sound often has a rustic drone basis. The last movement begins in a folk-like manner, but a four-note pattern in conflicting metrics appears, along with a strummed tune whose force asserts itself with increasing persistence. Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello intrudes with both plucked and arco figures on successive beats. Again, all the instruments move to the bridge (ponticello) for a potent dissonance. The second violin of Sergei Bresler intones a four-note theme as a trill, and the stated materials reappear. Rarely has passion been depicted with such exquisite agony. Clashing D-flat Major tonality with an added jab of E-flat leaves us with the combination of fire and ice that Janacek (and Dante) seem to agree upon as a fit manifestation of sacred and profane yearning.

—Gary Lemco