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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
String Quartet in F major (1903) [27.10]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)

String Quartet No.3 Op.15 (1937-38) [21.11]
Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)

String Quartet No.1 after Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata (1924) [17.20]
M. Nostitz Quartet
rec. June 2000, Domovina Studios, Prague
ARCO DIVA UP 0037-2 131 [65.58]
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In case you were wondering, the quartet’s fuller name is the Mathilda Nostitz. It was named after a distinguished member of a famous family whose patronage in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was generous and wide-ranging. It seems to survive on the first initial in its documentation.

Naturally Czech and Slovak music fans will look to the Ravel and make disappointed noises about the missing native quartet – there is no shortage – but others may well reflect on the parallels, implied because the booklet never spells them out, between the Ravel and the Janáček. It actually makes for a programme of stylistic and actual historical lineage, Haas famously having studied under Janáček in Brno.

The Moravian master’s First Quartet is youthfully projected, more so than by those old masters the Smetana in either their 1965 stereo recording (now on Testament) or their 1976 Supraphon disc. Incidentally we should be wary here of absolutes; whilst the nature of their interpretation, its colouristic and expressive slant, didn’t much change there were subtle, though slight, differences in tempo. They tightened up over that decade and there is a very slight increase in tension in these two recordings. The M Nostitz are less the personalised tonalists naturally – there are very few Jíři Nováks or Milan Škampas around these days – but they play with flair and commitment. This can occasionally lead them astray, and I felt in the second movement they were trying to project too much, the rhythms sounding over–processed and not quite natural. Others may well disagree but those unison passages are slightly too hard. As for the finale, well, the M Nostitz have a point of view and I respect it. This is avuncular and extrovert playing but I do miss the noble pain in Jíři Novák’s tone and Škampa’s unrivalled genius in the viola part, that internal, troubled spirit that in the newcomer’s hands is rather public.

Haas’s Third Quartet was completed in 1938. There are certainly more than a few stylistic reminiscences of Janáček in the scurrying figures, those abrupt conjunctions, the yearning cello line, the rapid cut and expressive thrust. But, true to its time, the rhythm is motoric. The Wenceslas Chorale runs throughout the central movement, fluid, nobly defiant, with a stoic resistance all the more affecting for its understatement – the restatement of the theme is especially touching. The finale is fast-slow, with Jewish melodies emerging quite explicitly along with the variations that make up the movement. It ends in confident affirmation. It’s a fine work that should be performed far more often.

The Ravel is brightly and sweetly lit in this performance, the M Nostitz making the most of those abrupt conjunctions, the eruptive element that Janáček must have absorbed. The pizzicati in the second movement could perhaps be shaped and phrased a little more convincingly and later on rhythms are just a touch flaccid – but hereabouts they do remind me of that old Galimir recording for Vanguard, certainly more than they remind me of inheritors of the flame such as the Calvet. The Czechs feel the slow movement faster than many of their rivals and it emerges as less inward and introspective as a result whereas they cultivate a quasi-orchestra unison sonority at the start of the finale – rather as the Calvet did in the 1930s, but unlike the Galimir who take care to clarify the individual lines.

Very properly this group has its own ideas as to repertoire and programming. The recorded sound is particularly good and the notes are free of fancy verbiage. In the end it’s actually rather clever programming and it gave me some pause for thought to consider the interconnections between the Ravel and subsequent Czech quartets – certainly not confined to Janáček.

Jonathan Woolf


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