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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
String Quartets Volume 3
Quartet No. 4 (1937); Quartet No. 5 (1938) Quartet No. 7 (1947).
Martinů Quartet

Recorded in the Martinek Studios, Prague, November/ December 1995
NAXOS 8.553784 [71.09]

Naxos has quietly been doing a grand job on behalf of the music of Bohuslav Martinů. We have two volumes of the chamber music, all six symphonies also his major choral and orchestral work ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ and now the complete string quartets in three volumes. There is an element of ‘anorakism’ in us all but it’s worth saying that if you were to buy that lot, the composer’s most significant compositions, it would set you back only about Ł40.

These three quartets make strange bedfellows. The 4th is a typically Czech work. I suppose if Janáček had lived on into the 1930s he might have written a third quartet like this. The 5th is a very fine and intense work more in the style of Bartók; dissonant, aggressive and rhythmic. The 7th is neo-classical and to emphasise that it has three movements with a central Andante and a final allegro seeming to update Vivaldi.

But why do composers write seven or more quartets? Aren’t there enough in the world? Martinů was very prolific and sometimes one wonders in certain works if the composer really had anything to say. The 7th quartet for me is like that. Its twenty-one minutes is stretched out into ramblings and note spinning without much point ‘signifying nothing’, unless I’m missing a point somewhere about music of the neo-classical era. Martinů’s tendency towards notespinning is especially noticeable in the immediate post-war period once he had settled into the security of life in New York. This is, of course, a very personal view.

The other two quartets are fortunately quite different. They pre-date the time when Martinů was driven out of his native homeland by the Nazis in 1940. As such they have more of the earthy Czech quality we associate with works like ‘In memory of Lidice’, finished in 1943 but started well before the war, and the Field Mass (1939). These quartets are each four movement pieces with typically hard-driven scherzos full of momentum and wonderful singing cross-rhythms. Each has a lyrical Adagio slow movement.

Czech dances never seem to be far away not only in the scherzos but, for instance in the first movement of the 4th quartet written in Paris. This also has a typically contrasting second subject. The fourth movement likewise "draws on Moravian and Czech sources for its inspiration". I quote the booklet notes by a writer who has in common with Martinů the fact that (for Naxos and Marco Polo at least) he is wonderfully prolific, Keith Anderson. Not only does he succinctly write about the composer’s life he also gives us analytical notes that are helpful and not overly academic. Of the 5th quartet he tells us that: "political circumstances prevented its performance in 1939 and that it had to wait until 1958 for its 1st performance". It is the longest and finest of the three with a substantial finale, which grows from a suspense laden Lento into a rollicking Allegro. It must have been very frustrating for the composer to wait almost twenty years before he could hear it. But surely Martinů knew Bartók’s 3rd Quartet of 1927.

I have to say that I have not heard these works before and I therefore feel unable to criticize the performances and to draw comparisons. However I must warn purchasers that the recording seems to be rather top heavy. The cello playing of Jitka Vlasankova may need to be more decisive and clear being here rather subsumed within the group. I shall blame the recording for this. The simple expedient of turning up the bass on the amplifier moderates the effect.

The quartet players are pictured within but why, again, has Naxos taken over seven years to release this disc?

Gary Higginson

see also review by Kevin Sutton


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