SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor “From My Life”; String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor – Bennewitz Quartet – Coviello Classics multichannel SACD, COV 51004 [Distr. by Qualiton], 46:09 ***1/2:
Smetana made his great contributions to nineteenth-century nationalism in his operas and orchestral music. He reserved his more autobiographical statements for the intimate context of chamber music. Of the four chamber works he wrote in his maturity, three make deep personal statements. The Trio in G Minor of 1855 was Smetana’s breakthrough work, a piece in which he established his own powerfully unique musical voice. Tellingly, its subject is a tragic one, reflecting on the emotions surrounding the death of his beloved daughter Bedřiška.
The First String Quartet, written in 1876, has an even more thoroughly realized program. In a famous letter to his friend Josef Srb-Debrnov, Smetana detailed this program; its central episode is Smetana’s deafness, which came in 1874 preceded by tinnitus that took the form of an infernal E sounding in his ears. This sustained E is introduced early in the first movement, which is supposed to reflect Smetana’s passionate early involvement with art and his hopes for a musical future. The wailing E returns at the very end of the piece, the tragedy that mars the joy Smetana takes in Czech music and his contribution to it. With a justly famous scherzo in the form of a polka and a tender slow movement that’s a tribute to the composer’s wife, small wonder this is one of the most beloved string quartets of any century.
Composed in 1882 in a state of depression and physical exhaustion just before the final collapse that sent Smetana to a lunatic asylum, the Second String Quartet has slowly won the admiration of musicians if not the general public. The first audiences, who heard the piece in 1884 scant months before Smetana’s death, did not understand what they were hearing, and I can understand their consternation. Here, the more generalized program of a “Triumph over Fate” (in Smetana’s words) has produced a more diffuse work, with less sense of direction, fewer memorable themes on which to hang. The quartet revisits the idea of the scherzo-as-polka and in a sense inverts the triumph-turned-tragedy pattern of the First Quartet, ending as it does in subdued but evident victory. But like Smetana’s late tone poem Prague Carnival, I think the Second Quartet bears the earmarks of Smetana’s declining powers, for all that it has supporters who celebrate its less regimented style. To each his own.
As far as I’m concerned, the Bennewitz Quartet gives this piece every chance in the world to make its points. Theirs is as beautifully proportioned and sympathetic a performance as I’ve heard aided by sound that’s lifelike in the extreme. The impression that you have a very good seat in a small but nicely reverberant hall is underscored by the clarity of every note, from the powerfully held E in the cello at the beginning of the First Quartet through to the exuberant finish of the Second.
It’s often said that a string quartet is as strong as its cellist, and if so, cellist Štěpán Doležal is a prime reason the Bennewitz Quartet makes such a powerful impression. Maybe a little too powerful; there’s no doubt that the smiling second movement of the First Quartet is driven too hard, faster than Smetana’s Allegro moderato, and not to its benefit. A little more air and light, less lightning, would have improved the performance of the First Quartet, powerful and beautifully played though it is. Also, while other labels are just as stingy, I still think forty-six minutes is a bit skimpy timing for a music CD.
– Lee Passarella