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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
String Quartet No. 3 (1929)
String Quartet No. 4 (1937)
String Quartet No. 5 (1938)
Emperor String Quartet
Recorded at Holy Trinity Church, Wentworth, Yorkshire, August 2002
BIS CD 1389 [61.10]


There’s no indication that this is the first in a two CD cycle of the Martinů Quartets by the young Emperor Quartet – but it would be good to think so. There certainly aren’t enough traversals of the works around that addicts can afford to turn up the opportunity to acquire a new one, especially one so expertly recorded and annotated (by Aleš Březina, who co-authored the critical revisions of the Fourth and Fifth and whose work on the Third was solo). So full marks to BIS for this release, which shows the Emperor on youthful, vertiginous and dynamic form.

I’d certainly recommend the disc for its verve and its drama – but let’s take a quick look at the native Stamitz Quartet on Brilliant (ex-Bayer, recorded in 1990 and harnessed to a Czech Masters 5 CD set – exceptionally cheap though). The Emperor’s Third – that puzzling twelve minute three movement work - is full of fine things; good motoric playing; the viola line brought out realistically; a fine tempo, the same one in fact as the Stamitz. And yet the older group set their internal clock with absolute nerveless accuracy; there is something inexorable about the tread of their clock that defines the movement, that stamps a presence on it. The Emperor sculpts big, but the Stamitz digs deeper. Elsewhere I’d place the Emperor high; a nicely accented finale, brittle and immediate and some slashing fiddle playing.

The Fourth, written in 1937 – I notice Březina doesn’t label it Concerto da Camera as it used to be, so maybe there’s been an editorial change – opens in the motoric Paris School of 1937. Here the Stamitz are more urgent, with a great sense of inner rhythm, the Emperor taking a more relaxed view, making the most of the woozy suspensions that Martinů demands and having generally a more romantic approach; they tend to be more expressive, the Stamitz, to be blunt, more cohesive. These differences are fairly consistent; the Stamitz more avian and lighter in the finale, the Emperor playing up the contrasts. In the Fifth, significantly the longest of the three and dating from 1938 the Emperor find some breathtaking lyric moments and they etch dramatically in the slow movement, managing to suggest, through curdled inner voices, the despair to come. They certainly are a graphic quartet in this repertoire, not least in the finale, where I prefer the Stamitz’s funereal tread to the Emperor’s more open response. Maybe it’s a matter of their respective views of the work.

These are powerful and eloquent performances; they don’t replace established recommendations but they do open up an opportunity to explore the Emperor’s more abrasively vertical response to these works.

Jonathan Woolf

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