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
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.