Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1, The Kreutzer Sonata (1924) [18:27]
String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters (1928) [24:58]
Gabriel FAURE (1845-1924)
String Quartet in E minor, Op. 121 (1924) [29:10]
Medici String Quartet
rec. Nimbus Records, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, November 1987 (Intimate Letters) and January 1988
NIMBUS NI5379 [72:35]
This performance of the Janáček’s First Quartet is very fine indeed. The tension between the two protagonists of the Tolstoy novel that inspired the work, as portrayed in the first movement, is perfectly brought out by the Medici Quartet, as is the coquettish character of much of the second. The third movement portrays the tragic act, dramatically played out here. My only disappointment, and it is a marginal one, is the tempo chosen for the main part of the finale. Had this been a little more rapid the repeated dotted note accompaniment figures might have been more urgent and less heavy, and the closing pages even more stunning than they already are in this performance.
There can be no doubts at all about the performance of the Second Quartet. It is one of the finest available, and the finest I have heard by a non-Czech quartet. The sul ponticello effects in the first movement will surprise some listeners accustomed to other performances: they are very drawn out and remarkably spectral. I was unsure about this at first, but repeated listening has convinced me. It was at the first hearing, though, that I excitedly signalled the startling high trills just before the end of the first movement, superbly executed by this remarkable ensemble. The rapid scrubbing passages in the second movement sound dynamic here, but above all, beautiful. There is a “lift” to the lilting rhythm of the third movement that many quartets do not achieve, and I find it appropriate and moving. Then the finale is a tour de force, played with stunning virtuosity, seemingly about to break the bounds of the medium, astonishingly fervent and passionate. This is a great performance and one that deserves its place in every collector’s shelves.
It is well known that the remarkable series of masterpieces Janáček composed in the last years of his life were inspired by his love for a much younger woman, Kamila Stösslová. Indeed, the “Intimate Letters” Quartet is in some ways her portrait, and a portrait of the composer’s feelings for her. Surprisingly violent, then, but a supreme expression of almost overpowering and explosive passion. By contrast, Fauré’s only string quartet, also composed in the last year of his life, is a work of Olympian calm. His later music, frequently sombre in nature, is almost totally free of demonstrative effect and surface gesture. The music can seem austere, though never sparse in harmony or texture. It is detached and cool, though never cold. It is music distilled, pared down in such a way as to leave only the essentials. I am aware, here, that many of the words I am using also appear in Geoffrey Crankshaw’s excellent booklet note, but rather than simple plagiarism, this is a manifestation of what Martin Cooper wrote in his famous book French Music (OUP, 1951): “To give in words anything approaching the quality and flavour of this music written by Fauré in his old age is impossible.” Best not to try, then. The listener should simply give himself over to this uncompromising music, seemingly from another world than Janáček’s, but just as profoundly satisfying in its own way. The Medici Quartet’s performance is masterly.
I imagine most collectors will be attracted to this disc by the Janáček, in which case I feel duty bound to point out that no serious student of the composer should miss out on Czech performances of these works. The young Skampa Quartet on Supraphon are particularly fine, but you won’t get any more music. Several older Czech performances, also on Supraphon, are not to be missed either. But this Nimbus disc is outstanding too, and collectors shouldn’t hesitate. The recording is excellent, detailed and vivid; there is a very capable essay on Janáček by Patrick Lambert; and if the coupling leads an unsuspecting listener into the rarefied world of late Fauré, so much the better.
A late Fauré masterpiece and Janáček’s two overwhelming quartets in magnificent performances.