Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor “From my Life” (1876) [27:45]
Leoš JANÁCEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters” (1928) [25:42]
Hába Quartett (Sha Katsouris (violin I); Hovhannes Mokatsian (violin II); Peter
Zelienka (viola); Arnold Ilg (cello))
rec. Haus der Chöre, Frankfurt/Main, Germany, 3-4 December 2008 (Smetana) and 25-27 January 2009 (Janácek)
ZUK RECORDS 331 [53:31]

The first thing one notices about this CD is the very short playing time. Why not include the first Janácek quartet as well? It would easily have fit and is the usual companion on disc of the composer’s second work in the genre. This is especially unfortunate since the performances themselves are first-rate as is the recorded sound.

The Hába Quartett has an interesting history. Founded in Prague in 1946 by violinist Dušan Pandula, it collaborated with contemporary composers both inside and outside Czechoslovakia. The modernist Czech composer, Alois Hába dedicated his last twelve quartets to the ensemble bearing his name. When Pandula defected to West Germany in 1968, the quartet disbanded. He then re-established it in 1984 in Frankfurt with his pupil Peter Zelienka. The quartet would now seem to have a rather international cast, but sounds like a native Czech ensemble to these ears. Comparing this recording of the Janácek work with a number of others, mostly Czech, the Hába Quartett has nothing to fear in the comparison.

Smetana’s well-known Quartet No. 1 receives a dramatic performance, not short-changing the romantic elements in the work. The Hába Quartett also brings out the dance element in the second and fourth movements very well. In the second movement, though, they employ more rubato in the introductory passage than other performances with which I compared this one, before launching into the polka theme of the movement. At first noticeable, one gets used to this without it detracting from the interpretation as a whole. The lyricism of the third movement’s love song comes across well. The finale dances joyously until everything comes to a halt with the sudden, piercing high E by the first violin. The movement then ends quietly, recalling themes from the first movement. Commentators have often pointed out that the high E symbolizes Smetana’s onset of deafness. The Hába Quartett captures well the contrast between the polka rhythms earlier in the finale with the peaceful and poignant ending.

Janácek’s Second Quartet, one of his most personal utterances, also receives sterling treatment by the Hába Quartett. One appreciates anew the solo passages, as is also the case with the Smetana, and special praise is due to the violist. After all, in this “love letter” to Kamila Stösslová, Janácek originally employed the viola d’amore largely because of the name. A normal viola is most often employed, as it is here. The ensemble playing, too, is impeccable. Tempos for the most part are normal, but the quartet is not afraid to stretch things a bit to make a greater effect. This is indeed a personal view of a very personal work, which is carried off completely successfully. In the finale, for example, the initial stomping dance theme is taken at a real clip — though not harried the way the Smetana Quartet used to do it. Then the slower portions are taken somewhat more slowly than usual, and the furioso sul ponticello is truly played triple forte and sforzato. The effect is more powerful than I have ever heard it. This is a winning account of one the twentieth century’s greatest chamber works, an account that ranks up there with the Škampa and Talich renditions. In addition, the quartet’s violist, Peter Zelienka, wrote the excellent booklet notes.

If only this disc were more generous in its playing time, I could heartily recommend it. As it is, most listeners will want both Janácek quartets together along with another work or works.

Leslie Wright