Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Bohuslav MARTINU (1890-1959)
The Seven String Quartets - an integral recording by the Panocha Quartet (1979-82)

String Quartet No. 1 French (1925?) [36.01]
String Quartet No. 2 (1927) [19.35]
String Quartet No. 3 (1929) [11.59]
String Quartet No. 4 (1937) [19.53]
String Quartet No. 5 (1938) [27.09]
String Quartet No. 6 (1946) [22.39]
String Quartet No. 7 Concerto da Camera (1947) [21.56]
Panocha Quartet (Jiri Panocha, Pavel Zejfart, Miroslav Sehnoutka, Jaroslav Kulhan)
rec: No. 1 Petynka Studio, Prague 10-18 Feb 1982; No. 2 Dvorak Hall, Prague, 1-2 Nov 1982; No. 3 Dvorak Hall, Prague, 26-27 Nov 1982; No. 4 Czech Phil Chorus Rehearsal Hall, Prague, 16-18 Dec 1980; No. 5 Czech Phil Chorus Rehearsal Hall, Prague, 22-24 Oct 1979 No. 6 Petynka Studio, Prague 31 Mar-3 April 1981; No. 7 Domovina Studio, 3-5 Sept 1979.
AAD stereo
SUPRAPHON 11 0994-2 113 [CD1 55.44; CD2 59.17; CD3 44.43]
  AmazonUK   AmazonUS  Amazon recommendations

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 finale.

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.

Rob Barnett

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board.  Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.This is the only part of MusicWeb for which you will have to register.

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: