Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No.1 in E minor From My Life (1876) [27:10]
String Quartet No.2 in D minor (1883) [18:00]
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Meditation on an old Czech hymn ‘St Wenceslas’ Op.35a (1914) [6:44]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.1 The Kreutzer Sonata (1924) [17:18] ¹
Talich Quartet
Vanbrugh Quartet ¹
rec. 1991, EMI Abbey Road studios, London (Talich Quartet) and All Saints, East Finchley, London (Vanbrugh Quartet)
ALTO ALC 1079 [69:38]
All these recordings derive from the early 1990s, and have been usefully brought together to form a three composer, all-Czech disc. Alto’s multi-coloured booklet tracking information, whilst perfectly legible, looks cramped and all wrong: re-space, simplify the colours and change the font, is my advice. But the performances are all right, certainly not quite at the top of the pecking order but offering consistent and consistently good playing. That applies to both quartets though rather more to the Talich, who are on home ground. The Vanbrugh, one of the best groups currently to be found in the British Isles, had a tougher assignment back in 1992, given that they tackled Janáček’s Kreutzer Quartet, a potential minefield for the unwary and under-prepared.

The Talich recording of Smetana’s two quartets makes a fine impression. In this performance — they recorded the First elsewhere — they sound quite close to the eponymous Smetana Quartet, who also left behind multiple recordings, in the studio and live, as one might have imagined. I find the EMI sound a touch chilly, but not enough to impede enjoyment of an airborne, quite lithe performance, nicely textured, with a sprung rhythm and plenty of wit in the Polka second movement. They don’t dig as deeply in the slow movement as do the Smetana, but evince calm resolve as the tinnitus attack begins in the finale, rather than grief-laden and excessively vibrated. Another great Czech quartet, the Janáček, left behind a version of the work that differs in most respects to the Talich and indeed the Smetana recordings: fruitful grounds for debate on the Bohemian-Moravian divide when it comes to the national repertory.
The late Second Quartet is much less often performed but is highly attractive, more compact than its brother, and its composition cost Smetana dear. It was an agony to write. All four movements are played in a conventional, assured way. The dance courses through the veins of this quartet and the sense of momentum is well graded. Inner voices are also well realised. As a worthwhile pendent there is Suk’s St Wenceslas Meditation, always a most attractive addition to any recital and indeed becoming something of a repertory piece these days. The Vanbrugh’s Janáček is at its most immediate and communicative in the contrasts and reflective abrasions of the third movement. They studied the work with Milan Skampa and show suitable awareness of the right colours and rhythmic emphases to apply. It’s a most persuasive reading on its own terms.
At the price bracket, indeed any price bracket, these performances offer highly satisfying rewards.
Jonathan Woolf
These performances offer highly satisfying rewards.