Janáček’s string quartets date from the last years of his
life, and both were directly linked to his love for, or, if
you prefer, his infatuation with, a much younger, married woman.
They are highly unusual works, expressing the composer’s passionate
feelings with such force that a mere string quartet sometimes
feels unequal to the challenge. His way with form defies conventional
analysis, with ideas seemingly flowing from his pen in profusion,
developed, repeated or discarded at will. The actual sound of
the music varies between astonishing richness and passages that
many would describe as ugly. Then there is the frequent use
of extreme contrast, passing from one idea to another without
warning or transition, often many times within a single movement.
The Hagen Quartet understand all this, and deliver in spades.
The theme that passes from instrument to instrument in the opening
pages of the First Quartet is very fast here, so much so that
any lilting, folk-like quality is lost. And you’ll rarely hear
the celebrated tremolandi later in the movement more
“scrubbed” than here, nor the various other bowing effects –
sul ponticello (playing on the instruments’ bridge) for
example – more vividly realised. One is also struck by the sheer
beauty of sound of this ensemble, like hearing the composer’s
orchestral works played by the Vienna Philharmonic. The second
and fourth movements each feature a crescendo so powerful and
so well controlled that it draws attention to itself, and indeed
from a technical point of view, these performances are of virtuoso
Why, then, do I find them so unsatisfying? The problem is that
the Hagen Quartet’s solution to the problem of expressing this
apparently uncontrolled outpouring of feeling is to take what
Janáček wrote and exaggerate it. The opening of the Second
Quartet is very slow indeed, for example, but as the movement
progresses the faster passages are taken at breakneck speed,
leading to a quite unnecessary underlining of the contrast that
is already written into the music. Did the tone employed near
the opening of the first movement of the First Quartet really
need to be quite so scratchy as this? Does the opening of the
fourth movement of the Second Quartet really need to be so aggressive?
Other quartets have found quite a different atmosphere here.
Later in the movement there is a pizzicato passage that, in
the hands of the Janáček Quartet (Supraphon) could almost
be by Mahler, the plucked notes evoking a mandolin. Not here:
snapped out for all they are worth, they are. The end of the
First Quartet is just too fast. The unwary might not even recognise
that the motifs passed from one instrument to the other are
those from the beginning and which have been present, in one
form or another, throughout. It may be effective as a way of
expressing near-unbearable passion, but with the link with the
opening bars of the work all but lost, it is, I think, a serious
Set against that, the close of the first movement of the First
Quartet is quite remarkably passionate, and that of the Second
features stratospheric trills that are spectacularly sonorous,
in tune and convincing. There are many passages one could cite
where the technical skill of these four players leaves one gaping
with admiration. Unfortunately that might be part of the problem.
There should be a sense of grappling with these works, just
as the composer grappled to contain his thoughts within the
bounds set by four stringed instruments. I can’t quite escape
the feeling, unworthy though it may be, that these extremes,
taking what Janáček wrote and tipping it over into excess,
might, just might, be for show.
I reviewed some months ago a Nimbus disc of the two Janáček
Quartets, coupled with Fauré and played by the Medici Quartet.
I have returned to that disc for this review and find no reason
to temper my enthusiasm for it. The Skampa Quartet on Supraphon
are very fine indeed, and have the stamp of authenticity. They
go some way towards the Hagen view in emphasising the music’s
violence, but they never overstep the mark. My favourite performances
of all, perhaps partly for sentimental reasons, are those by
the Janáček Quartet from 1963, mentioned above. I don’t
feel inclined to return to the Hagen performances when these
others go so much further in telling the whole story.
Curiously, in a lifetime’s involvement in music in different
ways I don’t think I have ever heard Wolf’s Italian Serenade.
Now that I have, I wonder what it is doing here alongside Janáček.
And I suspect there is rather more of a smile to be found in
it than the Hagens do in this admittedly brilliant performance.