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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


PRAGUE STRING QUARTETS
Lubos FISER (1935-1999),

String Quartet (1986)
Sylvie BODOROVÁ (b. 1954)

Shofarot String Quartet No.4 (2000)
Otmar MÁCHA (b.1922)

String Quartet No.2 (1987)
Zdenek LUKÁS (b.1928)

String Quartet No.4 (1987)
Jupiter Quartet
Recorded Domovina Studio, Prague 2001
ARCO DIVA UP 004-2 131 [63:38]

Arco Diva £12

Though some of the names on this disc were new to me, I played this disc with some anticipation, given the rich heritage of Czech chamber music this century, from Dvorak through Janácek, Martinu and Haba. It is devoted to a group of four contemporary Prague-based Czech composers calling themselves 'Quattro' and, as the title suggests, features a selection of their works for that most demanding of genres, the string quartet. The informative booklet note quotes their artistic manifesto as a search for "the fundamental questions of life and the meaning of artas something inconceivable without contact with the public - it is the public to whom they endeavour to speak". Amen to that! And it is a measure of their success in carrying out this aim that all the featured works here inhabit a traditional soundworld that is communicative and enjoyable without being over-demanding. This is not meant to be disparaging; they all manage in their own individual ways to effectively explore the sonorities of the medium without resorting to the excesses and cheap gimmickry that too often distort the modern quartet in an attempt to exorcise the ghost of Bartók.

Indeed it is true to say that the spirit of Bartók does hover over many aspects of these compositions (as indeed does that of Janácek ) but in a positive way. Elements of harmony (particularly the folkloric modality that each takes as its starting point) and rhythm constantly recall the Hungarian masters mature quartets; but the fact that the role of melody appears crucial to each of these composers immediately gives an individuality to their creative voice.

The disc starts with the relatively brief one-movement work by Lubos Fiser (1935-1999), a native of Prague, who wrote his only String Quartet in 1984, dedicating it to the Talich Quartet who gave the first performance at the Prague Spring Festival in the same year. It is a concentrated work, eschewing a traditional sonata type structure in favour of blocks of material which are juxtaposed and developed in various ways. Dissonance is employed (with the tritone becoming a binding feature) but not in an aggressive manner. The ear is led on a journey which feels entirely logical and satisfying, with Fisers material containing memorable melodic motives that return in transformed states, the whole arch-like structure ending in a jubilant affirmation of the basic tonality, C major.

The youngest of the group, Sylvie Bodorová (b. 1954) has used for her String Quartet No.4 the Hebrew name Shofarot- the plural of shofar, the sacred Jewish instrument that has kept its ancient rams head form and is heard in synagogues during the holiest of holy days. The three movements of Bodorovás Quartet bear three words as titles- Teruha ; Tekiah ; Shevarim and these signify the basic ways of playing the shofar, the characteristics of which are symbolically transferred to the four instruments of the string quartet. The shofaric elements that emerge in the music include sequences of fast repeated single notes, glissando-like melismas between two notes (usually a fifth apart) and melodic ideas drawn from Jewish folk music and ritual. There are also percussive effects created by the players stroking and tapping the instruments which, whilst not new, widen the aural boundaries of the medium and give variety of texture. Overall I suppose the three movements could be given a Western style thumbnail analysis as (1) rhythmic allegro; (2) impassioned adagio with central climax; (3) restless agitato finale, based on an ostinato pattern. The piece is once again short, concentrated and highly effective.

The String Quartet No.2 by Otmar Mácha (b.1922) was written in 1983 for the famous Smetana Quartet who performed it for the first time that year, though not on the concert platform but to a ballet by Pavel Smok. The piece is full of dramatic contrast, again in three movements, but this time with the boundaries of tonality pushed further back. The modal folk music of his native North Moravia provides the melodic base, with more traditional compositional techniques, such as continuous motivic development and variation, more in evidence.

The modal basis of the music of Zdenek Lukás (b.1928) is also rooted in folklore, Czech folk music in particular. His String Quartet No. 4, Op.213 dates from 1987 and is in many ways the most traditional piece here, with a straight four-movement structure following a familiar pattern (allegro; dance-like scherzo; melodious slow movement and energetic finale). Once again the folk elements such as pedal notes, rhythmic ostinatos and melodic arabesques are all integrated into the texture with considerable skill.

The performances by the young Jupiter Quartet, founded in 1990 by students at the Prague Conservatoire, are full of character and vitality, with a tonal blend that recalls their many illustrious predecessors and certainly continues the great tradition of Czech string quartet playing. The recording is slightly close (not a bad thing in chamber music) but with enough air round the instruments to give a realistic soundstage. Confidently recommended.

Tony Haywood

 


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