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Leoš JANAČÉK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata” (1923) [17:47]
String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” (1928) [25:40]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Cypresses (1887) [25:40]
Leipziger Streichquartett (Andreas Seidel (violin); Tilman Büning (violin); Ivo Bauer (viola); Matthias Moosdorf (cello))
rec. Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche-Leipzig, February 2007


Experience Classicsonline

This fantastic music here receives playing of the highest calibre in demonstration quality sound. A well planned disc, this is now one of the top choices for this repertoire.

Dating from late in his life, Janáčék’s quartets both date from the time of his infatuation with the young Kamila Stösslová and they mirror the turbulent passion that racked him at the time.  The first quartet was inspired by Tolstoy’s short story The Kreutzer Sonata, especially the deep but unspoken love between the two protagonists, which must have resonated with the elderly man as he contemplated his separation from the object of his adoration.  The second is the most blatant and forthright depiction of his love for Kamila in all of Janáčék’s output.  Works of genius, they are characterised by moments of unbearable lyricism which sit cheek by jowl with howling dissonances, nowhere more so than in the third movement of No. 1, where a theme of melancholy beauty is periodically disrupted by unmusical screeching, perhaps representing the husband in Tolstoy’s story who waits outside the door to kill the two lovers. 

The Leipzig Quartet have the full measure of these extraordinary masterpieces.  They embrace the beauty of quartet No. 1, but the feeling of barely concealed tension hovers under the surface right from bar one, making it all the more shocking when it rears its head.  There is a sense of gathering dread as the quartet - and the story - moves towards its tragic climax: see, for example, the second movement which has the feeling of an elegant dance thrown gradually off-kilter by the malevolent force that hovers around it.  There is playing of striking beauty in the third movement but the horrible tension forbids us from ever relaxing.  Likewise the finale builds to a whirling climax then abruptly subsides into nothing.  Intimate Letters begins with febrile energy then melts into a gorgeous section for the viola, which Janáčék originally planned to score for a viola d’amore – how appropriate!  The second movement is simply the unfolding of a single theme with ever more ardent passion.  The slow movement carries a love theme which Janáčék described in a letter as “particularly happy”: the viola playing here is particularly sumptuous, but the incisiveness of the lower rhythm layers it with plenty of tension.  The final pages of the quartet bring passion and vigour, but still an element of doubt.  Throughout the Leipzig players surge together as one unit, bringing passion, flair and a deep understanding of the duality which makes these works so powerful.  Janáčék said the work was “as if carved out of living flesh”: if that’s true for the notes then it also seems true of the playing in this performance. 

Room is found for a less nuanced but still delightful performance of Dvořák’s Cypresses, a collection of twelve movements based on an early song cycle of the same name.  The original poems focused on a young man’s unrequited love, and Dvořák rearranged the songs for string quartet adding new accompanying melodies and counter-melodies.  They make a lovely ensemble, and there is a beautiful “singing” quality to the playing, such as the violin the opening number, and the cello in the third and fourth, to name but three examples.  The dominant mood is overwhelmingly lyrical and full of melting tenderness, quite in keeping with Dvořák’s intentions.  Importantly, they serve as a gentle foil to the stridency of the Janáčék quartets. 

In addition to the marvellous playing I should mention the disc’s fantastic sound: ideally balanced, it feels like it’s coming at you from every direction.  The playing is close and clear, but still with a lovely bloom on the sound.  Furthermore, the disc is packed with more than 81 minutes worth of music, so you get your full value for money.

Simon Thompson


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