Discounting some isolated LPs including the fine Vlach version of Number
5 and 7 the Martinu Quartets have had rather spotty coverage.
This was the first complete traversal. Practically we have to discount some
juvenilia listed in Milos Safranek's and Brian Large's biographies.
When these recordings were released in the vinyl twilight circa 1980-83 the
cycle broke new ground almost to the same extent as the coeval (and similarly
analogue) Neumann cycle of the six symphonies.
Unlike the symphonies (which are a product of the American residence) the
string quartets are distributed more evenly across the Martinu timeline.
The ones numbered one to five are associated with his Parisian residence
(1923-39). The First Quartet is the longest of the seven. It is a
work of great beauty rooted in the uncomplicated Dvorákian sun married
into Ravel's impressionism. The first two movements almost had me wondering
if I was listening to a lost String Quartet by a Bohemian Vaughan Williams
and more immediately to Howells' String Quartet In Gloucestershire.
Certainly sun-saturated spinneys and high fields of a pastoral utopia
are evoked. The second movement, an andante moderato, is one of the
most sheerly delightful moments in all music. Listen also to the sotto
voce background slithering and sliding in the allegro con brio
The Second Quartet is in only three movements. It is a more fantastic
work than the first. Its first movement flees through a nocturnal wasteland
at great speed. Critics at the premiere noted that Martinu was the heir
to Dvorák's vigour. This work has moved on from the sweetness
and pepper of the first quartet into ambivalence and emotional complexity.
The andante's hymn-like melos provides pause for reflection before
the chaffing hurly-burly of the Allegro - Devilish fiddlers and all.
The Third Quartet's Allegro and Vivo have the bustling
activity and clarity of Arthur Bliss's Conversations. In the
andante (only numbers 4 and 5 lack an andante movement).
Suggestions of jazz rhythmic vitality propel the outer movements along while
the brooding middle movement acts as the work's dark and serious centre of
gravity as does the Adagio of No. 4. In the vivo at 1.19 Martinu
anticipates Shostakovich in the high harmonics of the violin. The brusque
rush of the outer movements perhaps portrays the crowds at a football match
and those myriad who greeted Charles Lindbergh's 'Spirit of St Louis' when
it landed at Le Bourget.
Fully mature Martinu rears up, instantly recognisable, in the Fourth
Quartet's Allegro poco moderato. That tune, blooming and spreading,
is the archetype of the great themes in the Fourth and Fifth symphonies as
is that at 1.15 and 2.54 in the allegro scherzando. The chopping and
chaffing typical of his neo-classical period is also there and the vital
tight intricate dance of the Fourth Symphony is in the allegro. The
Fourth is coaxing comfort by comparison with the chaffing Fifth which
in its first movement, alongside Beethovenian figures has a Bartókian
electricity. This is the second longest of the seven and has an uncanny
adagio with a dulled pizzicato as charged with meaning as the
stratospheric whisper of the whistling high note in Smetana's Aus meinem
leben quartet (No. 1). This is his most dissonant movement among the
24 that make up the seven quartets. We may easily surmise that here is a
composer tormented - the torment arose from the decision he was forced into
to make his 1938 summer holiday in Czechoslovakia his last ever. Nazi occupation
followed by Communist domination practically closed the doors permanently
on his return to his homeland. The allegro vivo with its dazzling
activity at times calls up memories of the Elgar Introduction and Allegro
and the humming and burble suggests the idyllic insect cloud rustle of
the opening of the Sixth Symphony.
The third disc in the set is shortest of the three. In fact these playing
times 'echo' the LP layout. The Sixth Quartet is most evidently written
in the midst of the one-per-annum Boston-bound sequence of six symphonies
from 1942 onwards. The subtle weave of the opening and the Bachian chatter
of the Allegro Moderato prepare the ground for the Mozartian serenading
and humming of the andante. The finale beetles and squalls with
activity. The last two quartets are concise works both running short
of 23 minutes each.
As if to prepare us Martinu dubbed his last quartet Concerto da Camera.
The Poco allegro rattles stridently along flooded with melodic riches
as well as with impatience. It is only in this recording set down at the
Domovina Studio that I heard the intake of breath of one of the players.
The quartet is given in red-blooded style and this can be heard in to good
effect in the Mozartian buzzing of the allegro vivo.
Hearing these quartets in a relatively concentrated series of listening sessions
reveals how little there is of Parisian desiccation in Martinu 's quartet
writing. The earliest Martinu is poignantly nostalgic while the other Parisian
quartets are by no means the neo-classical deserts I had feared. Martinu
's ripe invention lit up by his homesickness for his Czech homeland infuses
even the comparative aridity of the Parisian 'exile'. It bears eloquent witness
in the Andante of No. 7 - a movement which achieved a life of its
own. Was this one of his farewells, I wonder, to the composer, Vitezslava
Kaprálová, who was his pupil in Paris and who had died at the
end of the 1930s. Certainly it brims with deep feelings.
Of all the works I recommend numbers 1, 5 and 7: 1 for its pastoral reveries
and songs; number 5 for the throwing down of a psychological gauntlet; 7
for its lovely andante.
There is no trace of distortion and analogue hiss is hardly discernible at
all - a tribute to the Supraphon engineers who presided over the original
sessions in four different venues in Prague. The tone of the players is agreeable
at all times save in the Seventh Quartet where the problem may well be with
the acoustic rather than with the players.
The competition for complete sets is unsatisfactory. The Bayer set seems
no longer to be available. I have not heard the budget Naxos series but in
any event it is not yet complete.
For impassioned performances I recommend this set very strongly.