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BARGAIN OF THE MONTH


Leoš JANÁCEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.1 ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’
String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’

Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)

From Cypresses, B.152

New Helsinki Quartet
Recorded at Sigyn Hall, Turku, Finland, August 1996 DDD Super budget
WARNER APEX 0927 40603 2 [59.02]


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It is good to see the two marvellous Janáček quartets taking such a firm place in the record catalogue. They have steadily increased in popularity to the point where they virtually rival the Bartók quartets, and there is the same obvious appeal for chamber enthusiasts who want to sample a very different sound from a conventional string quartet.

Having greatly enjoyed the New Helsinki’s recent Apex disc of Grieg and Sibelius quartets, I looked forward to this new re-issue with keen anticipation. I was not disappointed. The group play with a real feeling for the unusual textures that the composer creates, and both works benefit from a mixture of vital rhythmic attack, warm tonal blend and, not least, extremely realistic recording.

As is by now pretty well known, these works date from the amazingly creative final decade of the composer’s life, when he was infatuated with Kamilla Stosslová. Many of his pieces from this period have programmatic or autobiographical associations, and the two quartets illustrate more clearly than most the presence of Kamilla, the first indirectly, the second more openly.

For his First Quartet, written in a week in 1923, and taking Tolstoy’s novella of 1899 as his subtext, Janáček uses the themes from the story (betrayal, a loveless marriage, inflamed but unreciprocated passion) to illustrate in musical terms his own triangle-like situation. Actually, one need know nothing of this to enjoy the music, which abounds in originality and inventiveness. The opening chord has an anguish that is immediately arresting, and this refrain keeps re-appearing throughout the movement, being alternated with typical fanfare-like flourishes. The piece is rife with markings like energico ed appassionato, molto espressivo, come un lamento, and very tellingly in the finale, jako v placi (‘like in tears’). This is very emotional music, with violent outbursts (usually marked sul ponticello) continually interrupting the lyricism. The New Helsinkis miss none of this, and their precision of ensemble and clarity of attack is admirable.

The Second Quartet is even more intense and direct. Written in about three weeks and given the unambiguous subtitle ‘Intimate Letters’, it appears to contain direct depictions of specific characters and events. Indeed, in his letters to Kamilla, Janáček was clear who is at the centre of the work, “…you are behind its every note, alive, passionate, loving". This is the music of a mature master with the heart of a young man in love. On the whole, the piece is less abrasive and more subdued in its outbursts than the angry earlier quartet, and again the New Helsinki Quartet do full justice to the passion and mood swings inherent in the work. The opening motif, said to represent the first time the composer saw Kamilla, acts as a kind of motto theme, returning in various guises, and the New Helsinki seem to get to the heart of this structural device immediately, giving it a due weight and importance. They also appear to have Janáček’s own words in their minds throughout their performance; having heard the work premiered, he declared “This piece was written in fire. I think that I won’t write a more profound or truer one”. Little more than a month later he was dead.

As a short, contrasting, but entirely appropriate filler, the New Helsinki play a selection of Dvořák’s string quartet arrangements of his youthful love songs known as Cypresses. These are charming and intimate miniatures, full of melodic invention, and here played with all the style and delicacy one could hope for. Rival discs do offer more substantial fillers (the Janáček quartets are quite short), but in many ways this ceases to be an issue when the main works are so well played, recorded, and so inexpensive. Even the liner notes are more than adequate.

I have become a real fan of the enterprising and extremely well presented Apex series, and certainly no-one investigating this marvellous release will have any cause for complaint.

Tony Haywood


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