Leoš JANÁCEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923) [17:55]
Hans KRÁSA (1899-1941)
String Quartet (1921) [20:18]
Victor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
String Quartet No.3 Op.46 (1943) [13:55]
Schulhoff Quartet
rec. March 2008, Bohemia Studio, Prague

This is a good CD though it’s a work too short. There are plenty of things that could have been recorded to make it more competitive. But as it is, one thinks: not another Janácek First and without it the Krása and Ullmann leave us with less than thirty-four minutes of music. No one wants to parcel things out like this, judging performances by the stopwatch, but I’m afraid this is how things are in a tough, commercial marketplace and if it means that the Schulhoff Quartet’s performances don’t get heard by more people because of it, then that would be a pity.

Ullmann’s Op.46 Quartet was written in 1943 in Terezin. It has a Debussian gauzy opening, and, though written in one movement, works on a fairly clear and conventional four section plan. The faster section is finely textured and rhythmically pointed, before the impressionist hues return with a concise Rondo finale. It’s a work of perception, formal balance, and an upholding of established principles. It has weight but no exaggeration. I must say I marginally prefer the performance of the Kocian Quartet – they have a higher recording level and perhaps as a result play out a touch more (PRD 250180 – Czech Degenerate Music volume 3, coupled with his Piano Sonatas 5, 6 and 7) but otherwise there’s not much in it.

The Krása Quartet was written in 1921. It has a fair share of post-war uncertainty, and its Mahlerian mélange of themes and characteristics gives impetus to the concision of the writing. March themes, hints of Frère Jacques, of Viennese waltzes and veiled melancholia are the constituent components of this opus – a touch too of Schoenberg’s own two published essays in the quartet genre. In the fast central movement we have a kind of George Grosz in music; acidic, grotesque, the dance sections sounding manically forced, the ideas swift, sectional, abrupt, manic - even the elegant viola passage with its brush stroke accompaniment and the writing deliberately redolent of Smetana. The chiaroscuro of Viennese unease that haunts the finale is excellently conveyed here – touches of Zemlinsky and Mahler again.

Finally we have that Janácek First. Too many recent recordings I’ve heard of this composer’s music have tried too hard to make points. This one lacks the weight of the very best – say the Smetana Quartet from 1965 (on Testament) – as the Schulhoff tend toward a generally lighter sonority. They also tend to be a shade more objectified than is perhaps ideal, and don’t sweep up to the great melodic statements with as much invincible assurance as others do. Sometimes it feels a little bit-by-bit. But not a bad performance.

You can find the Hawthorne Quartet’s fine traversal of Krása’s Quartet, slightly slower than the Schulhoff (Decca 440853 from 1994 – now at Archiv Music; it’s coupled with the second and third quartets of Pavel Haas) and there is the Kocian’s Ullmann on PRD, mentioned above. These are all recommended.

It’s a pity we don’t have another appropriate work but we have to assess what we do have. Performances and recording are very worthwhile.

Jonathan Woolf