Leoš Janáček – The Two String Quartets

Orchid Classics

ORC: 100036
Release Date: October 2013

Leoš Janáček - String Quartet No. 1, 'Kreutzer Sonata' (1923)
1. Adagio – Con moto
2. Con moto
3. Con moto – Vivace – Andante
4. Con moto – Adagio
Leoš Janáček - String Quartet No. 2, 'Intimate Letters' (1928)
1. Andante. Con moto. Allegro
2. Adagio – Vivace
3. Moderato – Andante – Adagio
4. Allegro – Andante – Adagio

Leos Janacek (1854-1928), perhaps the most interesting Czech musician of the early half of the 20th century, is a perpetuator of the national music tradition and of the preoccupations and aesthetic creed of his predecessors, Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak. Contemporary with them in his youth and a great admirer of the Czech music heritage, Janacek brought a strong sense of originality to early 20th century music. To a major extent this was due to a superior understanding of the national character and to his selective responsiveness to the spirit of the time, which led him to leave behind the Romantic patterns of his youth, while also taking a critical stance towards some modernist trends of the time.

Janacek was a redoubtable folklorist (among the first to use the phonograph in field research), with a deep interest in the field of dialectology. His collections from the rural areas of Moravia and Slovakia are exemplary in terms of richness of content and scientific rigour. His compositional style and musical output reflect his passion for folk art, as well as his rough, realist aesthetic. Janacek’s observations about speech intonations led him to remark upon what he called the “melody of speech”, from which he extracted specific rhythms and colours as the signature trait of his musical innovations. His mature style reveals a seductive and shocking originality, stemming from his peculiar and unique manner of understanding and treating spoken language as music.

Janacek’s two string quartets belong to his last and most prolific creative period, which was highly original and marked by several major works, including the operas Katya Kabanova (1921), Prihody Lisky Bystrousky (The Cunning Little Vixen, 1924), Vec Makropulos (The Makropoulos Case, 1926) and Zmrtve ho domu (From the House of the Dead, 1928), as well as the Concertino for piano and chamber ensemble (1925) the Capriccio for piano and winds and the Sinfonietta and Glagolsky mse (Glagolitic Mass), all composed in 1926. Written in an advanced and inventive style, these works excel in their surprising juxtaposition of contrasting musical ideas, ranking among the all-time masterpieces of the genre. Both works have a strong programmatic character that can be viewed as a direct extension of the composer’s intense spiritual and emotional experiences.

The String Quartet No.1 in E minor (1923-1924) was dedicated to the famous Czech Quartet.1 Although thematically Janacek resorted to the practice of borrowing and recycling ideas from previous works (the two versions of the Trio for Piano, Violin and Cello, written between 1908 and 1909, whose scores were lost in time), the basic idea of the work was inspired by Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy’s famous novel Kreutzer Sonata. (The composer’s interest in Russian music and literature was another major facet of his cultural pursuits, reflected in the dramatic transposition of several subjects offered by Russian literature [Katya Kabanova, From the House of the Dead], by his affinity with the aesthetic of Mussorgsky and Borodin, and by his genuine admiration for Tchaikovsky.) Composed in the traditional four-movement form, the quartet highlights the passionate nature of musical discourse. Without providing a detailed programme, the composer introduces the score with the following words: “inspired by L. N. Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata”, obviously alluding to the inner psychological turmoil explored by the great Russian novelist in his short story. A theme of this sort (which caused a scandal in 1889 when the novel was published) bears a possible resemblance to Janacek’s own sentimental life. In a letter to Kamila Stosslova, the muse of his twilight years, he confesses: “I had in mind a poor woman, tormented, beaten, battered to death, as Tolstoy described her”. The music of the quartet therefore reflects Janác?ek’s own vision of the profound message of the work, illustrating the way the composer transposed the characters’ psychological complexity and struggles into the realm of pure music, imbuing it with tremendous dramatic weight. Expressively, the work covers the entire emotional spectrum, from incessant restlessness to violent cry and tragic despair in the last movement.

The writing is motivic in character, typical of the composer’s vigorous and intercut style. The first movement, Adagio. Con moto, clearly outlines a sonata form, with the main folk-inspired theme carried by the cello and then taken over by the other instruments. The two-measure opening motto reappears frequently at transition points, serving as an obsessive reminder. The motivic cell, consisting of an ascending perfect fourth followed by a major second, recurs in various guises in the following movements, lending a cyclic cohesion to the entire work.

In turn, the once again folk-style theme of the second movement, Con moto, provides a fertile ground for novel sound and expressive effects. One such memorable moment is the persistent trill in the cello’s low register, merging with the successive entrances – sul ponticello – of the other instruments.

The third movement, Con moto. Vivace. Andante, is ternary in form and begins with an opening phrase that reappears under different guises, according to a discursive procedure of folk inspiration. After a middle section in which the theme flows freely and rhapsodically, the recapitulation continues the ingenuous series of varied phrases. Here again we find moments of striking expressive power, such as the effect produced by the theme in stretto canon, played in a very fast tempo.

The fourth movement, Con moto. Adagio, serves as a conclusion, emphasizing the cyclic nature of the work. Its thematic material and the way it is developed constitute as much an echo as a resolution of the turmoil of the previous movements.

The String Quartet No.2 “Listy du verne” (Intimate Letters, 1928) concludes the list of the composer’s works. The first public performance of this impressive musical confession was given by the Moravian Quartet, one month after the composer’s passing. The programmatic title inscribed on the manuscript is Love Letters. Composed in just 20 days, the work is profoundly autobiographical in nature, just like Smetana’s quartets. It gives musical form to the composer’s most cherished and innermost memories and thoughts about Kamila Stosslova. Each of the four parts (Andante, Adagio, Moderato, Allegro) corresponds to a significant idea from a love letter. The author himself wrote the following words to the dedicatee: “You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately…” In this work the traditional formal structure has been almost entirely effaced under the overwhelming emotional force. The only element preserved from the classical string quartet is the four-movement structure, although neither the form, nor the character of the movements follows established conventions. Frequent fluctuations between extreme tempos also occur in each of the four movements, along with a positive and energetic mood implied by the frequency of the con moto tempo marking.

The opening movement is a musical evocation of the composer’s vivid memories of his first meeting of Kamila. A slow, harmonic introduction evolves into a subtly folk-tinged melody in the solo viola – the timbral and emotional symbol of the beloved woman2 –, serving as the underlying theme of the entire musical discourse. The successive sections of the movement are joined together by an ostinato accompaniment shifting from one instrument to another. The second movement evokes the holiday time spent with Kamila at the Luhačovice spa in Moravia. A lyrical and warm melody unfolds in surprising contradiction to the disturbed mood of most of the composer’s themes. A pentatonic theme, also present in the first movement, is treated in the cyclic manner of the first quartet. The middle section brings a spirited and rough episode, with a dance-like lilt, while the end abounds in references to the thematic material of the first movement.

The third movement resumes the dancing spirit and continues with an extended slow episode, followed by an energetic Presto with ostinato accompaniment and echoes of the pentatonic theme. This movement is the freest of all in formal structure and also vaguer in programmatic terms. (Milan Škampa, a Janácek expert and editor of the quartet, suggests the third movement is a lullaby for the child that this platonic couple never had…)
The fourth movement reflects the composer’s anguish for his “pretty little weasel”, although eventually it “sounds not as fear but as longing and fulfilment”, as Janacek himself explains in one of his last letters to his beloved. The musical construction is based on a new folk-style motif with a dominant rhythmic structure, functioning nearly as a rondo theme. The quite unusual cadence in the second violin is one of the characteristic features of this movement’s finale.

For this recording the Arcadia Quartet used the scores published by Universal Edition, supervised and revised by Milan Skampa3 (the Philharmonia collection, Nos. 486 and 487). Original Romanian text © Hilda Iacob, revised by Adrian Pop English translation © Marcela Magda

The Sunday Times: Both works are played with searing intensity by the fine young Romanian quartet
“Each fresh hearing of Janacek’s quartets is a shock — as if his researches into what he called the melody of speech resulted in a totally new kind of music…Both works are played with searing intensity by the fine young Romanian quartet.”
by David Cairns, The Sunday Times, UK, September 29, 2013

Gramophone Magazine: Young Romanians record Janáček’s two quartets
“They are not afraid to take matters to the extremes which Janáček invites […] … a bold but thoughtful performance of the two remarkable works. They are strenuous performances…The recording is vivid and immediate.”
by John Warrack, Gramophone Magazine (page 63-64), UK, November 1, 2013
https://www.gramophone.co.uk/reviews/review?slug=jan%C3%A1%C4%8Dek-string-quartets- nos-1-2

The Art Desk: You feel that you’re eavesdropping on something very private
“This work [Second Quartet], inspired by Janáček’s unrequited love for Kamila Stösslová, was premiered just weeks after the composer’s death, and the Arcadia Quartet manage the ecstacy beautifully. The stratospheric first violin line in the third movement’s dance section is phenomenal here. You feel that you’re eavesdropping on something very private. The finale’s exultant, screeching close leaves you feeling, rightly, exhausted. The darker first quartet, loosely inspired by Tolstoy’s short story The Kreutzer Sonata, is more emotionally ambiguous. I like the Arcadia’s shadowy opening, and there’s a bone-chilling passage in the third movement where a pallid cello and viola canon is sabotaged by screaming sul ponticello effects in the upper strings. The whole work lasts just 17 minutes, but this performance feels much weightier. If you don’t know these pieces, the Arcadia Quartet offer an ideal starting point. Close-up, dryish sound adds to the visceral impact.”
by Graham Rickson, The Art Desk, UK, November 16, 2013
https://theartsdesk.com/classical-music/classical-cds-weekly-brahms-jan%C3%A1%C4%8Dek- john-harle

The Listener: Outstanding!
“Whoever is looking for a new reference recording should consider this one. (…) For me, the Arcadia Quartet is – at least concerning Janáček – the cutting edge currently among European interpreters……Outstanding!”
Rainer Aschemeier, The Listener, DE, November 13, 2013

Klassik.com review: Janáček, Leoš – String Quartets No.1 & 2: Charming Twilight
”(…) brilliant performance (…), spreading a unique, charming twilight.”
by Gero Schreier, Klassik, DE, January 22, 2014

“These are sensational performances, in which the quartet members show the cohesion, timing, and strong musicianship, individually as well as collectively, that are needed to put these Janáček masterworks across.”
Phil’s Classical Reviews, February 24, 2014

BBC Music Magazine
“Not only do both Quartets set formidable technical challenges, they require astonishing emotional commitment and dramatic timing…the Romanian Arcadia Quartet certainly have the measure of the dramatic aspects of these remarkable works.”
by Jan Smaczny, BBC Music Magazine, UK, March 3, 2014

All Music review
“The Arcadia Quartet has mastered the unusual techniques and tone colors Janácek requires, so the quartets are played with skill and energy and the effects and timbres are brilliant. (…)”
by Blair Sanderson, All Music, USA, March 4, 2014 ***

Fono Forum Magazine
(…) ”The Romanian ensemble lives through the emotional eruptions in Janácek’s music with heart and soul (…) Sensual ecstasis, romantic rave and existential fear collide unreservedly; every accent is a stitch into the heart…”
by Marcus Stäbler, May 2014