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Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
String Quartet No. 1 (1918)
String Quartet No. 2 (1925)
String Quartet No. 3 (1929)
String Quartet No. 4 Concerto da Camera (1937)
String Quartet No. 5 (1938)
String Quartet No. 6 (1946)
String Quartet No. 7 Concerto da Camera (1947)
Madrigals for Violin and Viola (1947)
String Trio No. 2 (1934)
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)

String Quartet No. 1 in E minor From My Life (1880)
String Quartet No. 2 in D minor (1882-83)
Leoš JANÁCEK (1854-1928)

String Quartet No. 1 Kreutzer Sonata (1923)
String Quartet No. 2 Intimate Letters (1928)
Stamitz Quartet
Recorded in Prague 1988 (Janácek), 1990 (Smetana and Martinu)

BRILLIANT CLASSICS 6473 [5 CDs 245.48]

The Quartets are an under-investigated part of Martinů’s chamber output. Few attempts stay long in the catalogue but the Panocha’s traversal of all seven on Supraphon 11 0994-2 (three CDs) from 1980-83 LPs was consolidated into a box in the mid-nineties. The Stamitz, originally on Bayer, now in this Brilliant Classics “Czech Box,” also recorded the cycle, in 1990, an extensive period in the studios for them as they also set down the Smetana Quartets included here alongside the two Janáček from 1988. At Brilliant Classics’ ludicrously cheap price one can investigate at will the variety of Martinů’s inspirations and occasionally, it must be admitted, lack or recycling of them.

The First Quartet dates from 1918 and is something of a ’prentice work. The first of the four movements is folk-influenced in the moderato passages while strong Dvořák inflexions inform the melodic line. The form is rather unconventional, the lyricism touched by a degree of youthful sensuousness, and the key keeps shifting as if to keep us on our toes. The slow movement is impressionistic - he may not have reached it yet but Martinů’s musical horizons were already formidably Parisian. The formal transitions in this Debussyian movement are rather unexpected and startling but moderately effective, especially in this performance. Rhythmically the third movement is propulsive with a trio section full of supple lightness and the finale, the longest of the four movements, rather outstays its welcome despite the return of the earthy Dvořák influence. The Second Quartet followed seven years later in 1925 and it opens with deceptive gentility – soon to be followed by brisk animation and mildly Roussel influenced writing. The technique here is much more concentrated and advanced even though he allows himself the luxury of a combustible pizzicato episode. The work is at its most impressive and most impressively played in the rather static Andante, complex with occasional sforzati but bathed in dense dark colours. It threatens fugato or Chorale development at one point but manages pretty well to fuse a historically aware sensibility with a modern occasional neo-classicist technique; the ending is oddly bleak. Come the Finale though and textures are immediately lightened and aerated – there’s a frisky solo violin cadenza, rousing pizzicati and dancing, relieved drive. The Third Quartet of 1929 concludes the first disc of this set. It’s the most compact of the seven and consolidates but doesn’t much expand upon the advances made in the Second; big thrummed pizzicati for the lower strings, the viola’s line thick and deep and some motoric writing all enliven the first movement. The second movement is a slithery affair and the finale has real drive and splashes of bold colour - painterly music.

The Fourth Quartet, the first of his so-called Concerto da Camera Quartets (the other was the last), begins in that bustly neo-classical School of ’37-’38 way so familiar from his contemporary orchestral works. It winds down in another technique familiar to admirers before developing renewed adrenalin. Scampering drama informs the Allegro scherzando and I was taken by cellist Vladimir Leixner’s inquisitive little contributions. The Adagio is rather light in tone with a somewhat wandering tonality but it soon settles into high-lying violin writing and expressive middle voices. The finale is genial and colourfully motoric once again – the dramatic “slow down” of the material that Martinů so often cultivates is linked to the similar incident in the opening movement and acts as a contrastive device as well as imparting an intriguing sense of stasis and reflection into the material. Following, a year later, in the turbulent year of 1938, the Fifth is the greatest of all the Quartets. The tough drive of the opening movement is elastically extended to take in moments of lyrical, almost nostalgic reflection. There is a sense of distinct tension as each of the voices seeks out its individual line before the driving momentum is once more resumed. The first violin part explores exceptionally high-lying writing, expertly negotiated by Bohuslav Matousek, himself a soloist of distinct ability. The Adagio utilises melody from Kaprálová’s song Farewell Handkerchief to poignant effect. The movement is unsettled, full of jabbing violin and cello accents – the introspection is complex and emotional convoluted, and this is surely not an extrapolation from what we know, biographically, of his relationship with Kaprálová. Insistent, repeated, bordering on the tensely obsessive, the Allegro vivo continues the unsettledness of the work before the passionate lament that opens the finale. This is the delayed heart of the piece, its journeying-toward moment; the inward keening concentrates in one focal point all the rhythmic and motivic shards that have not coalesced, that have stubbornly refused to cohere. Once done Martinů unleashes the full weight of the Allegro conclusion – stern, bristling, allowing some more innocent passages to emerge but turning back to the bridling, arresting authority that the earlier emotional resolution has now allowed. Not only is this a technically powerful work, it is argued with strong internal dynamic and emotive contrasts. It charts that movement with honesty and with genuine warmth and power and stands as the summit of Martinů’s control over the form, a focus of conflict and resolution he never again attempted.

The Sixth Quartet was a post-war work, written in 1946 in America. It’s essentially optimistic with folk-like textures vaguely reminiscent of his earlier work in the quartet form. It marks a distinct change from the pre-war Fifth, a work suffused in personal and spiritual turmoil, and which embraces in the Andante easy and free lyricism. The Andante here is quite quick and has elegance and charm with only a few brief shadows to intrude. The finale banishes care; spirited optimism prevails. I suspect however that the Stamitz could have found just a few more flecks of disappointment in the opening Allegro moderato. The last Quartet, No. 7, dates from 1947, a period in which he was still optimistic about his return to a professorship in Prague. The Stamitz capture pretty well the sense of excitement, almost friskiness – well, as near to frisky as Martinů gets in a Quartet – that is engendered here. He even ends the opening movement with a barely concealed little quasi-baroque procedure, a joke-flourish of delightful panache and confidence. The Andante is indeed one of his most sheerly beautiful and relaxed melodies and one moreover that unfolds with unselfconscious, uninterrupted eloquence. It is radiant, not at all accompanied by harmonic shifts or neo-classical design, just plain unvarnished lyricism evolving peacefully at its own pace. Eight glorious minutes. The joyous and affectionate finale in a rather "old fashioned" style hints indeed at Haydn and Beethoven along the way, almost as if Martinů felt he had nothing left to prove or to demonstrate in the form.

And indeed that was it. The rest of the disc gives us the Madrigals of 1947 written for Lillian and Joseph Fuchs. Matousek and Jan Peruska are lithe and elegant in the first, exploit the fluttery whimsicality of the second with conviction and skill – especially when they open out into reflective intimacy. In the Allegro they are rhythmically solid and galvanizing – also full of airy lyricism. The String Trio is the second he wrote and dates from 1934. It’s in two compact movements, the first doused with colourful neo-classicist intentions and incident, harmonic and rhythmic, as well as a good sense of "space." There are times when it does sound a little clotted – I’d like to know how the Parisian dedicatees, the excellent sibling trio, the Pasquier, managed it. A swift and comprehensive Poco moderato ends the work – not a hugely impressive one but well worth hearing.

I’ll be brief with the remainder of the discs not because the performances are poor but because most prospective purchasers will be interested in this box for the Martinů. The Stamitz essay both quartets by Smetana and Janáček. They are fine, rather middle-of-the-road performances, honest and well played. There are moments – in Smetana No. 1 and Janáček Intimate Letters first movement - when a degree of literalness can occasionally derail them. These are however discreet, not over-emoted traversals; you won’t find much sleekness, sensuality or emotive effusion – equally you won’t find leaden phrasing or technical liabilities. Tonal blend is not as cohesive here as it is with other quartets but the advantages are those of individuality of phrasing.

A warm welcome to this disarmingly cheap set. The Martinů Quartets are well worth the effort to get to know and the notes by Milan Slavicky point some of the way there – Karl Michael Komma writes on the Janáček works. If you’ve not heard them, or have not heard them all, I can heartily recommend this comprehensive traversal of the unpredictable, occasionally highly impressive works that make up the corpus of Martinů’s Quartets.

Jonathan Woolf



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