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Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.1 (Kreutzer Sonata) (1923) [18:13]
String Quartet No.2 (Listy duverne) (Intimate Letters) (1928) [26:01]
Martinu Quartet (Lubomir Havlak (violin I); Petr Matejak (violin II); Jan Jisa (viola); Jitka Vlasankova (cello))
rec. 29 February and 1 March 2000, Hlubos Chateau
ARCO DIVA UP 0036-2 131 [44:23]

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One thing is immediately apparent when listening to Janáček’s works: they are chock full of passionate outpourings. His musical portrayal of human drama is frequently autobiographical in nature.

Although recognition of his compositions did not come until he was sixty years old he continued producing remarkable music during his last fourteen years. This is the period from which these works date; in fact his second string quartet was his last completed work. Much of this music was inspired by his unrequited love for the married woman Mrs Kamila Stosslova, 38 years his junior, whom he met in 1917 and to whom he penned over 600 letters. He wrote to her in his final year that "For the last eleven years you have, without knowing it, been my idol. Whenever there is warmth of feeling, sincerity, truth and ardent love in my compositions, you are the source of it".

Janáček’s output of chamber music is small but what its lacks in number is more than made up for by the intensity of feeling packed into each work. Anyone who knows his piano cycle "On an overgrown path" will have noticed the way in which he can imbue the simplest of tunes with considerable overtones of tragedy, regret, nostalgia and compassion. If ever there were works simply gushing with these ideas it is the two string quartets on this disc. The first of them entitled "Kreutzer Sonata" is a musical evocation of the woman in Tolstoy’s story in which Janáček champions the dominated woman over the husband. The portrait of this woman is extremely powerfully painted right from the opening bars. Only in the last movement, with music that is less full of anguish, does Janáček show his confidence in the dignity of the human soul.

The title of second quartet "Intimate Letters", is clearly a reference to all those letters to Kamila. Into this work he pours his personal passions and depicts the sterile family life that followed the tragic loss of his two children and his burning love for Kamila. Of this quartet he wrote "This is my first composition which sprang forth immediately from an emotional experience I had just lived through. Formerly I used to compose my memories. This work, my Intimate Letters, acquired shape in fire, the former ones in hot ashes only".

The works are quite emotionally draining to listen to but are totally engaging and hold the listener completely until the last bars.

I must say that I was mightily impressed by the Martinů Quartet’s performances. They know these works inside out and the playing completely mirrors all those musical utterances of passion and regret. The sound is exemplary, clean, crisp and possessing a brilliance like a gleaming diamond.

I have never heard these quartets better played and I imagine they will become a benchmark recording; in any case that’s how they will remain for me.


Steve Arloff


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