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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



BARGAIN OF THE MONTH

Janácek Quartet. The complete recordings on Deutsche Grammophon
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

String Quartet in G major K387
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

String Quartet in C major Op. 33 No. 3 The Bird Hob III; 39
String Quartet in E flat major Op. 33 No. 2 The Joke Hob III; 38
String Quartet in D minor Op. 76 No. 2 Fifths Hob III; 76
Roman HOFSTETTER (1742-1815) Attrib Haydn
String Quartet in F major Op. 3 No. 5 Serenade Hob III; 17
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Octet in E flat major Op. 20 (with the Smetana Quartet)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

String Quartet in E minor Op. 59 No. 2 Razumovsky
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Quartet in F minor Op. 34
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81
String Quartet in D minor Op. 34
String Quartet in F major Op. 96 American
String Quartet in E flat major Op. 51
String Quartet in A flat major Op. 105
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)

String Quartet No. 1 in E minor From My Life JB 1; 105 (T 116)
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)

String Quartet No. 2 Intimate Letters JW VII/13
Janácek Quartet
With the Smetana Quartet in the Mendelssohn Octet and Eva Bernáthová in the Brahms and Dvořák Piano Quintets

Recorded 1956-63
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 474 010-2 [7 CDs 428.42]



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The Czech Lands have never lacked for string quartets. From the days of the Bohemian Quartet and their slightly younger rivals the Sevcik-Lhotsy in the 1920s the discography has been immeasurably enriched by characterful and evocative performances nurtured in the finest conservatories of central Europe. After the rise and fall of such as the Prague, the Ondricek and the National Theatre Quartets - all of whom recorded – the 1950s heralded the arrival of two stellar Czech quartets; the Smetana from Prague and the Janáček from Brno. The latter was founded in 1947 by four students at the Brno Conservatory. The original second violinist, Miroslav Matyáš, was replaced by Adolf Sykora in 1953 to give us the familiar line up of Trávnícek, Sykora, Kratochvíl and Krafka. After studying the quartets of the leading Brno composer and musical figure, the quartet took the name of the Janáček. Gradual ascent followed and they reached a position of powerful eminence until the death in 1973 of Trávnícek when a slow decline set in.

One of an enticing looking series this Deutsche Grammophon Original Masters series – others include Kempff, Hotter, Eugen Jochum and Furtwängler – releases recordings made not only by them but also by Decca and Westminster between 1956 and 1963.They made other recordings of course (notably for Supraphon) and remade some here in this set (such as the Janáček Intimate Letters in 1963 and there is also a 1968 Mendelssohn Octet again with the Smetana) but there is a freshness and very attractive musicality to these earlier traversals that strike one just as immediately as those other recordings (and indeed perhaps even more so).

There’s a feast of great quartet playing here. The Mozart G major has a rarefied delicacy and great sweetness of tonal blend, with fine passagework from Krafka in the opening movement and from Trávnícek in the second movement’s cantabile phrasing. The entries in the finale are a joy to hear – delightfully elegant. Their Haydn is deeply pleasurable. They are alert to dynamic variation in the opening Allegro moderato of the Op. 33 No. 3 Bird though it is rather slow but the slow movement is better, with an almost confessional intensity always kept moving but with its tonal richness and freshness intact. The finale features cleanliness and assurance with a couple of elegant portamenti. The Joke (Op. 33 No. 2 in E flat major) has a real sense of patrician wit, with superfine chording in the Scherzando and all the delicacy and refinement you could want in the Largo. Bluff humour reigns in the Hofstetter (still under Haydn’s name here) with the first violinist’s long solo in the slow movement a real highlight. In the D minor, the so-called Fifths, there is perhaps if anything slightly too much exquisite phrasing in the opening allegro but how well they develop the knife-edge potential of the Minuetto.

They join with the Smetana for a good performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. There is marvellous blend but with a clarity of string parts – and they do play the repeat – but for me the opening Allegro lacks the sheer exultant drive of, say, the old augmented Kroll Quartet performances – ropey old recording, galvanic momentum though. There is a sweet gravity in the Andante however and an elfin Scherzo and plenty of vigour in the finale. The Razumovsky quartet goes well – if a little too refined for me. They tend to abjure abruptness and sharp attacks, maintaining clarity at the expense of drama (a matter of taste I know). The inner part writing however is splendidly delineated and there is clarity of voicings in the Andante which is quite slow, with a communing simplicity; though arguably a little too heavy and occasionally over emphatic.

Their Dvořák is however deeply impressive. The opening of the D minor is marvellously evocative, full of vivacity and tumble; the rubato and bow shadings exemplified in the Alla Polka second movement all manage to convey meaning and shifting mood. The Adagio is ravishing – subtle and tonally effulgent, with pizzicati flecking the viola’s line and the 1st violin line soaring aloft. The American is just as impressive with control and rhythmic drive in abundance – also charm (which one doesn’t always get in this work) and zest (which one can but is too often simply speed). There is colourful and expressive playing in the Op. 51 E flat major, beautiful pacing of themes and elasticity of rhythm in the Dumka and a finale soaked in wit. I deeply admired the stormy muscularity of the opening movement of Op. 105 in A flat major or the exemplary way they sustain the span of that quartet’s long slow movement. There’s plenty of (superior and non-rustic) ebullience in the finale but the Janáček are careful to weave little moments of affectionate elasticity into the line.

One CD couples Smetana and namesake Janáček quartets and both receive magnificent performances. From My Life is powerful but deeply expressive, with incremental depth in the slow movement that is agonisingly conveyed. In Janáček’s Intimate Letters the shading of colours and bow weights in the opening movement are responsible for some truly stellar use of palette and sonority. The architecture of the movement is compellingly vivid in their hands and the vibrancy and lyric rhythm of the third movement no less so. They are joined by Hungarian-born pianist Eva Bernáthová in the Brahms and Dvorak Piano Quintets. These are attractive performances – not openly superior to the leaders in the discography it’s true but admirably firm footed and very strong on the kind of teamwork that produces tonally blended and deeply musical readings.

The Janáček had a very compelling tonality and an unassailably direct musicality: they were a magnificently “equalized” quartet, with scrupulous care paid to inner voicings and weight of tone as well more obviously to the collective blend. Bowing was well synchronized – and they played from memory – and in their native repertoire especially and frequently in the classical they were astonishingly persuasive interpreters. This seven CD box set is a mandatory purchase for admirers of this great quartet.

Jonathan Woolf



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