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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
String Quartet No. 1 French H117 (1918) [36:01]
String Quartet No. 2 H150 (1927) [19.35]
String Quartet No. 3 H183 (1929) [11:59]
String Quartet No. 4 H256 (1937) [19.53]
String Quartet No. 5 H268 (1938) [27.09]
String Quartet No. 6 (1946) H312 [22:39]
String Quartet No. 7 Concerto da Camera H314 (1947) [21.56]
Panocha String Quartet
rec. Petynka Studio, Prague (Nos 1 and 60; the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum (Nos2 and 3) at the Czech Philharmonic Rehearsal Hall (Nos. 4 and 5) and at Domovina Studios (No.7) 1979-82
SUPRAPHON SU 3917-2 [3 CDs: 55:44 + 59:17 + 44:43]

These are recordings made by the Panocha between 1979 and 1982 and reissued now in a three CD set. The Martinů quartets are seldom presented as an integral collection and one or two single discs, which one might have hoped would have progressed to include the full seven quartets, seem to have stopped in their tracks – the Emperor on BIS and the Kocian on Praga for instance.

The biggest early problem centres on a quartet’s corporate response to the early 1918 quartet. On a rival set the Stamitz [Brilliant Classics 6473] go for bulk and take it to the forty-minute mark. The Panocha clip four minutes off that timing and even then it’s still an ungainly work. But differences of detail are telling, above matters of tempo. The Stamitz bring greater mystery whilst the Panocha tends to stress the sap, urgency and youthfulness of the writing. The corollary is that the Stamitz perhaps bring a greater yearning and warmth to the music. This though is not typical of the two quartet’s approaches to the later works

The Stamitz were recorded in a drier acoustic than that of the Panocha and it doesn’t always flatter their sonority. Both take No.2 well though. The Stamitz establishes a more tense and expectant feel, emphasising those stabbing lines in the slow movement. The Panocha tends to be more introverted and less inclined to probe vertically. In the finale the Stamitz sound outsize, expanding almost to the sound of a chamber orchestra – big, powerful playing.

The qualities of tone and sonority are of course important; so too matters of rhythmic emphases in these of all quartets. So one finds that in No.3 that the Panocha usurps the Stamitz in matters of tensile grip. They play with real bite whilst the Stamitz are less immediate and more recessive, partly as a result of the recording quality it should be noted. The Stamitz are gawkier than the Panocha here, more ungainly tonally, and not as focused either. Some may actually respond well to this kind of playing and it’s certainly vibrant in its own way and it contrasts with the more cosmopolitan sound of their rivals. I prefer the Stamitz’s woozy suspensions in the slow movement but admire the smoother sound of the Panocha generally.

Things are even in the Fourth. The Stamitz are faster in the fast movements but slower in the Adagio. The one thing that counts against the Stamitz yet again is the blunting of their corporate attacks by the recording – a pity. The Fifth of 1938 inspires both groups to valid differences. The Panocha sings beautifully in the opening Allegro ma non troppo whilst true to form the Stamitz are more abrupt and less ingratiating tonally. The Panocha seems to want to emphasise the Janáček-like turns of the Adagio and their finale is etched bigger than their compatriots with a greater sense of keening. If you prefer the more equable and gimlet response of the Stamitz you will also be rewarded.

The Sixth is the first of his two post-War quartets. Here the Stamitz prefer ruggedly expressive playing, the Panocha a more withdrawn, more suave viewpoint. The Stamitz enjoy the slow movement’s shifting harmonies more than the Panocha, or at least emphasise then more richly. No.7 dates from 1947 and marks the end of the quartet cycle. True to form, and consonant with their two cycles, we find the Stamitz generally etching more strongly – they’re more determined, more alive and quicker. Not that the Panocha lacks rich qualities here as well. I’m sure that many will prefer their chaste refinement and the elegance of their phrasing and tonal cohesion to the more rough-hewn Stamitz.

You can follow a more detailed review by me of the Stamitz performances here. They’re part of a Czech Masters box with the seven Martinů quartets, the Madrigals for Violin and Viola, String Trio No. 2, both Janáček quartets and the two by Smetana. It’s a Brilliant Classics five CD box, at bargain price.

My own preference would be the Stamitz though I appreciate that this complicates things given the nature of their box set. The Panocha are splendidly warm and elegant proponents and one admires them. What I miss in some of their performances, finally, is grit and an element of rhythmic charge. I do find those qualities in the Stamitz so, in default of hearing the eponymous Martinů quartet performances on Naxos, it’s to them that I would go.

Jonathan Woolf


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