Leoš Janáček is a unique phenomenon in the
history of classical music. He was born in humble surroundings
in 1854 in the small Moravian town of Hukvaldy. After his studies
he became the head of his own music school in the town of Brno.
Until 1895 he devoted himself mainly to folkloristic research.
His early musical output was unremarkable and influenced by
contemporaries such as Antonín Dvořák. His
later, mature works incorporate his earlier studies of national
folk music in a modern, highly original synthesis. This was
first evident in the opera Jenufa,which was premiered
in 1904 in Brno. In the year 1916, at age 62, Jenufa
was performed to great acclaim in Prague. When Jenufa
was staged in the opera-houses of Vienna (1918) and Berlin (1924),
he finally achieved international recognition. In the eight
years before his death at age 74, he astonished the musical
world by completing five more operas.
In the summer of 1917, while on holiday at his beloved spa Lucacovice,
he met a beautiful woman half his age, with whom he fell madly
in love. A love-affair never materialized, but she was to remain
the object of his affection for the rest of his days. While
staying faithful to her husband and children, Kamila Stösslova
maintained an extensive correspondence with the aging composer.
Some six hundred letters that Janáček wrote to her
have been preserved and published, and a large number of his
works are dedicated to her. The inspiration Janáček
found in his love for Kamila not only prompted him to compose
five operas, but also made him turn to the more intimate medium
of chamber music. In his final years he wrote a string quartet,
violin sonata, wind quintet, the Concertino for piano, the Capriccio
for left hand piano, and his last completed instrumental composition,
the second string quartet of 1928.
Both string quartets are dedicated to Kamila Stösslova,
and both have nicknames. The first is called ‘Kreutzer
Sonata’ after the Tolstoy novel, which refers to Beethoven’s
Violin sonata of the same name. Janáček called his
second quartet ‘Intimate Letters’, and in a letter
to Kamila we read: ‘today, it’s Sunday, I’m
especially sad. I’ve begun work on a quartet; I’ll
give it the name Love Letters’. Each movement evokes a
certain point in their relationship, and when the quartet was
near its premiere he wrote that ‘you stand behind every
note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body,
the glow of your kisses - no, really of mine. Those notes of
mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately’.
To symbolize that love, Janáček chose an instrument
that embodies the feminine form both in sound and appearance:
the viola d’amore. The viola d’amore is part of
the old viol family; it has seven strings plus five resonating
strings. The tuning is based on a major triad, not on fifths
like the violin. It was very popular in the baroque era, and
Antonio Vivaldi wrote several concertos for the instrument.
When the viol family was replaced by the modern violin, viola
and cello, the viola d’amore lay dormant for several centuries.
In the twentieth century, with its renewed interest in old music
and instruments, it came to life again. Paul Hindemith, among
others, was responsible for resurrecting its use. Janáček
fell in love with its sound and used it in his opera Katya
Kabanova, another work that was dedicated to Kamila. When
he started his second quartet, he decided that he would substitute
the viola with a viola d’amore. The viola d’amore
has one severe drawback: the sound that it produces is very
delicate and soft, and there is no way that it can compete with
the much more forceful violin and cello - even when played on
gut strings. Janáček abandoned the idea and reverted
to the normal viola. Unfortunately an original score has not
The Mandelring Quartet asked viola d’amore player Gunter
Teuffel to make a reconstruction of Janáček’s
original ideas. Teuffel worked out a performance version in
which the viola d’amore is reinstated. In a very thorough
and elaborate text in the booklet, he explains his decisions.
Better yet, the label Audite has provided us with a video that
has been published on youtube. In this clip Teuffel explains
the way the instrument is built and played, and together with
the other members of the quartet he plays important excerpts
from the score. He tells us (in German) that the other players
are holding back, but to tell the truth, what we hear is a full-blown
string quartet. One must assume that the recording technician
helped a little in redressing the balance.
Audite presents two recordings of the second quartet, first
the published version, and next the reconstruction. An ear-catching
difference occurs in the very opening, where the full chords
in first and second violin are delivered pizzicato, not arco.
This creates space for the fragile sound of the viola d’amore
to blossom. To detect most of the other changes one really needs
a score - available free of charge in the Petrucci library on
the internet. In the video we notice that on the last page of
the score it is not the first violin, but the viola d’amore
that delivers the high embellished notes that float over the
whipping chords of the other instruments.
The Mandelring Quartet consists of three siblings: Sebastian
Schmidt leads, his sister Nanette plays second violin, and brother
Bernhard cello. Roland Glassl is the viola player. They record
exclusively for the label Audite and have won praise for their
award-winning issue of the complete string quartets of Dmitri
Shostakovich. Musicianship is impeccable and intonation is spot-on.
The rough-and-ready attack that mars so many recordings of these
very orchestrally conceived scores is fortunately missing. The
large helping of general pauses in these pages can turn tricky,
but here they are realized to perfection.
The recording is exemplary. The position of each player is defined
very precisely, which is something that really matters in the
case of the reconstructed Second Quartet. The viola d’amore
is placed slightly to the right of centre, and can be followed
very easily. This is a must-have for Janáček-fans
and chamber music aficionados alike.
Also posted on Opusklassiek.nl