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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1 “Kraytserova sonata” (after Tolstoy:  The Kreutzer Sonata) (1923) [16:53]
String Quartet No. 2 “Listy důvěrné” (“Intimate Letters”) (1928) [23:06]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola (1947) [15:11]
Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker (violin); Philip Setzer (violin); Lawrence Dutton (viola); David Finckel (cello))
rec. May and June 2008, LeFrak Concert Hall, Queens College, New York.  DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4778093 [55:26] 
Experience Classicsonline

There was a time, not too many years ago, when the Janáček quartets were the property of Czech ensembles to the exclusion of the rest of the Western world’s leading string quartets.  Not any longer!  They are now among the standard repertoire of most of today’s quartets.  As Janáček’s star has risen on the international scene and his music has become better understood outside his native land, his works have appeared more and more often on concert programs throughout the world.  His two quartets, along with those of Bartók and Shostakovich, are among the greatest of the genre in the twentieth century.  The Emerson recorded the other two composers’ quartet cycles earlier to much acclaim, especially the Bartók.  They have now turned to Janáček with a rather unusual, but very appropriate companion, Martinů’s Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola, placed between the quartets on the disc.  This work more frequently appears on Martinů chamber anthologies, but makes an especially worthy disc mate here.  It could even be argued that the principal reason for acquiring this disc is because of its program, rather than for just another recording of the Janáček quartets. 

How do the Emersons stack up against their many competitors?  Compared to other non-Czech ensembles, such as the Juilliard and Alban Berg Quartet—to which I have direct comparison—very well indeed.  I praised the Dante Quartet (Meridian) last year for its idiomatic accounts of these works and called them the best non-Czech group I had heard in this particular repertoire.  I was more troubled by the somewhat reverberant and artificial recorded sound.  There is no problem with the sound on this new DG recording by the Emersons.  It is in fact one of the best sounding quartet discs I have ever heard.  They undoubtedly have thought hard and put a great deal of effort into these performances, too.  They are clearly superior to the Juilliard, who really seem to be struggling to get Janáček right.  Yet, their very fluency and what sounds like easy virtuosity has its drawbacks.  One wants some sense of struggle in these works, something to bring out the passion that the lovesick composer expressed in these very personal compositions.  I feel more of this passion with the Dante than with the Emerson and even more with such native groups as the Talich and Škampa quartets (both Supraphon).  It’s difficult to explain just what is missing from these Emerson accounts because they are so well performed and in such beautiful sound, but listening to one or other of the Czech ensembles alongside these demonstrates the superiority of their native feeling in these works. 

The Martinů Madrigals, on the other hand, are more cosmopolitan in scope, not that they have more appeal than the Janáček works.  They are much easier to assimilate by non-Czech groups.   Philip Setzer and Lawrence Dutton do them complete justice.  Martinů composed them in New York City for the brother-and-sister duo of Joseph and Lillian Fuchs.  As Anthony Burton points out in his excellent notes, “the title reflects Martinů’s long-standing love of the Renaissance madrigal, which for him represented freedom from conventional formal structures, a range of textures including genuinely equal-voiced counterpoint, and above all a treatment of rhythm which was not tied to regular bar lines or four-square phrasing.”  This very attractive composition consists of two rhythmic fast movements surrounding a slow one that near the end contains a typically romantic, yearning melody, immediately stamping this as the work of Martinů.  Any fan of this composer would welcome these pieces.  It is interesting that though they were composed some twenty years after Janáček’s, it’s the latter’s which sound the more modern! 

For all Emerson Quartet aficionados, this disc is a must.  As usual with this quartet violinists Drucker and Setzer switch roles of first and second violins, respectively, with Drucker playing the lead in the first quartet and Setzer in the second.  It is astonishing to think that the Emersons have been performing for over thirty years—the quartet was founded in 1976—and without a change in personnel.   It is also good to see so many string quartets including Janáček in their repertoire, and having the Martinů is an added bonus.  Too many Czech groups, including the Škampa, have only the Janáček quartets filling the whole CD—not the most value for the outlay.  On the other hand, for fans of the composer this new recording can only supplement the Škampa or one of the other native groups.  It does not supplant it.

Leslie Wright


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