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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884) String Quartet No.1 in E minor “From My Life” (1876) [28:26]
String Quartet No.2 in D minor (1883) [18:41]
Bennewitz Quartet (Jirí Nemecek, Stepán Ježek (violins); Jirí Pinkas (viola); Stepán Doležal (cello))
rec. Hans-Rosbaud-Studio SWR, Baden Baden, Germany 6-9 July 2009

Experience Classicsonline

As testaments to the human spirit the two String Quartets by Smetana are hard to beat. Their genesis is well known. In the latter throes of syphilis the 52 year-old Smetana went completely deaf - even then being tormented by phantom sounds and storms raging in his head. Locked in this isolated - and one imagines terrifying - world, one which led to his death in a lunatic asylum just months after the second quartet’s completion, he managed to write these two extraordinarily moving biographical works. This story alone would be enough to ensure some degree of curious interest from potential audiences but Smetana’s genius - even in extremis - was to find a viable way of fusing classical music form, with nationalistic romantic colour and the all-important programmatic/biographical element. Particularly as far as the first quartet is concerned I cannot think of any piece of chamber music that is so explicitly and successfully programmatic. Smetana insisted that the subtitle “From My Life” was used whenever the piece was performed. Further still, Smetana explained the ‘meaning’ of each movement in letters to friends; this has been reprinted into the Peters edition of the parts. Such has proved to be the appeal of this work for both performers and audiences that it is in the repertoire of most if not all of the great string quartets of today and any other age.

The Bennewitz Quartet who perform here are yet another very fine Czech quartet. Formed in 1998 they have won various prizes at the major international string quartet competitions. It is quite extraordinary how a country the size of the Czech Republic continues to produce instrumentalists, and string players in particular, of such high quality but more importantly real personality. I enjoyed both these performances very much indeed - am I imagining it or do the Bohemian players find that extra little degree of swagger and style to their playing that makes this music sound so very idiomatic? Smetana filled the first quartet in particular with rhythms and melodic shapes steeped in the national music of Bohemia. In letters to friends he explained the first movement as being about; “the call of fate into the life struggle, the love of art in my youth… an inexpressible yearning for something..” The fate motif - echoes of Tchaikovsky there - is sounded by a powerful falling 5th on the viola. Very often the success of a performance of this work can be judged by how well the drama of the opening is achieved. Well the Bennewitzs are superb. Violist Jirí Pinkas takes the opening solo by the scruff of its neck and plunges us into this life and death struggle. But listen too to how subtly the cello pedal is played with minimal vibrato and the rocking violin figures add chilly menace - this is very skilfully layered music-making. Soon all four players are swept into the roller-coaster of emotions of this terrific movement. In truth Smetana writes in a style that stretches the string quartet - as just four instruments - to breaking point; this is symphonic writing in all but name. Which is why, not surprisingly, George Szell orchestrated the work. As an appendix to the original this is a performing version well worth seeking out. These quartets have been lucky in the recording studio - it seems to have inspired many great quartets to great performances. I have a particular fondness for the first version I ever knew from the Juilliard Quartet - of No.1 - on CBS/Sony. Following the score I realise that the Bennewitz players are actually a lot truer to the letter than the Juilliards who lovingly indulge some of the lyrical passages by letting tempi slip - something which I know I should disapprove of but somehow can’t here. The Bennewitz play with a total commitment which occasionally makes for a slightly roughened chord or fractional loss of perfect ensemble but this is a tiny price to pay for an arc of performance that feels so right.

The second movement; “Quasi polka takes me back to the merry times of my youth [when I] was myself well known as an enthusiastic dancer”. Another tremendous movement fusing the polka form with the ‘need’ for a scherzo and the narrative of the whole work. Muscular joy bursts from this performance - happy times indeed. At one point Smetana marks the parts “quasi tromba” - an indication which is meant to have convinced Szell of the composer’s larger scale intentions for the work. The central trio features one of Smetana’s greatest strokes of instrumental genius - if also the hardest to bring off. The two violins have off-beat double-stopped chords marked with sharp crescendo/decrescendo marks over a gentle dancing polka figuration for the lower two strings. The intended effect - getting those double stops bang in tune is piggishly hard - is of a folk-accordion. Key is the dynamic gradation and here I find the Bennewitzs just fractionally polite, totally in control for sure just a mite under-characterised compared to the rest of their performance, the accordion doesn’t quite ‘wheeze’ as it might. There is even more poignancy in the slow movement; “Reminds me of the beauty of my first love to the girl, who later on became my faithful. The struggle with the unfavourable fate, the final reaching of my goal” Musically this is a ravishing - I am in awe of anybody who can produce something of such beauty in the midst of their own pain. Add to that the biographical detail that by this stage of his life domestic bliss for Smetana had all but broken down and the memory of his ‘first love’ must have added to his misery. Perhaps here the Juilliards score for me by being more reticent and cooler at the outset which allows the music to expand more. For my taste the playing by the Bennewitz Quartet here just tips over from the dramatic into overly forceful undeniably exciting though it is. The finale; “the recognition of national realization in our beautiful Art… happy success along the way.. a terribly sounding high tone ringing in my ear as warning of my cruel fate…submitting to the incontestable fate… with a very small hope for a better future”. Another remarkable fusion of form and narrative. The Bennewitzs are marvellous projecting the joy and energy of the opening. Technically the rising 4ths are real finger-twisters not that that is at all apparent here. Some might find the playing verges on the aggressive but again when following the score it becomes apparent how skilfully the players voice their parts - this is not just one extended musical blast. For some reason the high E harmonic does not pierce the texture as penetratingly as in some versions - what an extraordinary moment that is, one that always moves me. As does the final despairing dissolution into sad acceptance - here’s another extraordinary musical twist; the quartet is in E minor, Smetana was looking down the barrel of a future with no money, a career and reputation destroyed by illness and a domestic life in disarray but for the final six bars he slips into that serenest of keys E major - remarkable and very moving.

His String Quartet No.2 has never enjoyed the same popularity as the first. Smetana wrote this as continuing the biographical story of the earlier work. It was completed some seven years after the first and only months before his death. By then his disease had progressed to the point where he was forbidden to work or read for more than fifteen minutes at a time and he was plagued by the fear that “if I do not commit [musical ideas] to paper immediately, I cannot remember how they were, even half a day later” and “all the music I am processing in my brain at the moment is covered by a haze of anxiety and pain.” Yet even then Smetana was still trying to experiment and expand the form of the string quartet. This led to confusion and mis-comprehension by early audiences who heard the formal experiments of the work as symptomatic of the advancing disease. Thomas Jakobi’s informative note points to the way in which Smetana juxtaposed folk-influenced melodies against austere passages combined with an almost plastic approach to rhythm and heightened syncopation. To our ears it sounds in advance of its time - try the forceful opening gesture [track 5]. From My Life is so melodically rich that nearly any other work will seem poor in comparison. For performers the complexity of the work allied to its relative brevity - less than twenty minutes total playing time for all four movements - makes the programming of it in concert far from easy. On disc, as the ideal partner for the great earlier work no such problems exist so one is far likelier to have encountered this work via recordings than in live performance. There is a very powerful argument to be made for it being an even greater work than the first by virtue of its extraordinary concentration and the enormous adversity in which it was conceived. The Bennewitz are again excellent at conveying the struggle and drama contained here. This is thrilling string playing - Smetana wrote “it represents turmoil in the soul of a musician who has lost his hearing” - and turmoil is what we get. Smetana was right to be concerned that the “inner conflict” of the work could leave the piece sounding fragmentary and disjointed. One of the Bennewitz’s great skills here is to pull the whole together so convincingly. This is an SACD but unfortunately I do not have the equipment to take advantage of this multi-channel format. However, even in standard stereo the quartet sound superb - they make a huge sound, it is hard to imagine this power being generated by just four players. It is interesting how Smetana copies the broad structural sweep of the first quartet here but with more questingly abstract results. So the second movement Polka moves away from rustic good nature to something altogether more unsettling while still in polka form. The main formal departure of this second quartet is jettisoning a slow movement in favour of a fragmentary fugue that develops out of a opening passage which surges up through the instruments in a ferocious volcanic outburst. In many ways this is the most disturbed - indeed modern sounding - part of the work and again the way the players maintain superb overall control while allowing the disparate elements to spin away from the whole and then reunite is perfection. The opening of the Finale - Presto appears initially to be the most ‘confused’ part of the work. Again Smetana seems intent on stretching the fabric of string quartet writing to the absolute limit. Yet gradually, coherence and indeed a sense of valedictory celebration is reached and - as Jakobi describes it - Smetana achieves his triumph over fate and the work ends in a miraculously joyful mood.

If by the strangest of quirks either or both of these pieces have passed you by I would strongly recommend them. The Bennewitz Quartet are confident, exuberant and skilful guides and choosing them you would be in safe hands. At just forty-six minutes playing time this makes for a rather short disc. I would characterise their playing as modern by which I mean they are willing to sacrifice perfect tonal blend and milliseconds of ensemble for the greater good of the dramatic demands of the music, not for them the super-blended smoothed off edges of some quartets. Since much of both of these pieces are meant to be played ‘at full throttle’ this can make for compelling if draining listening. These performances join a list of many powerful versions and can rank with any.

Nick Barnard










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