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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1, "The Kreutzer Sonata" (1923) [17:23]
String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters" (1928) [25:04]
Panocha String Quartet (Jiří Panocha; Pavel Zejfart (violins); Miroslav Sehnoutka (viola); Jaroslav Kulhan (cello))
rec. Dominova Studio, Prague, 27 April, 10-11 June 1995. DDD
SUPRAPHON SU3906-2 [42:33]

This disc was first issued in 1999 and appears here at mid-price. The timing is still remarkably low (the disc is in effect half-full – or is that half-empty?!) but despite this these remain eminently recommendable performances from a distinguished Czech quartet. They come into competition, of course, with a host of other groups, such as the Talich (on Calliope), the Škampa (also on Supraphon), and the Martinů Quartet on Arcodiva (a MusicWeb Recording of the Month). That the Panocha manages to hold its own is all the more remarkable, therefore.

The first quartet takes its subtitle from Tolstoy's story of the same name. It is a late work, but despite this seems to breathe the passion of youth, a passion that initially struck me as underplayed in this account. It turns out this is a deliberate ploy on the part of the Panochas, for a touch of restraint underlines the more ephemeral passages as well as emphasising the even more overtly expressive Second Quartet. There are lovely moments within this carefully considered and interpretatively taut account. The quasi-improvisatory cello lines of the first movement and the tenderness of the third movement stand out. The obsessive repeated fragments of the second movement are remarkably unobtrusive here; the finale is intense, if not searingly so.

The Second Quartet wears its late-Janáček language on its sleeve. Emotions run deeper, especially in a performance such as this. The first violin (Panocha) is unafraid to coarsen his tone when appropriate; the second movement is almost vehemently insistent. Panocha again provides lasting enjoyment with his magnificent high register in the third movement Moderato, bringing identifiable pain to the lines. The way the rustic dance that launches the finale is presented unaffectedly is impressive, too, providing no clue as to the varied emotional trajectory this movement will enjoy. This finale is only 7:39, but it feels much more when presented like this – exhausting. It is just as raw a performance as that by the Artemis Quartet on Virgin, a January 2007 MusicWeb Recording of the Month - there the coupling is Dvořák.

A superb disc.

Colin Clarke


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