LeoŠ JANÁčEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata” (1923) [18:49]
String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters” (1928) [26:08]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Italian Serenade in G (1887) [6:34]
Hagen Quartet
rec. November 1988, Kirche St Konrad, Abersee, Austria
NEWTON 8802072 [52:13]

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 standard.

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 error.

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.

William Hedley

Very hard-driven, virtuoso performances of Janáček’s two sublime Quartets, but more satisfying performances are available.