Czech Music for Strings
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Suite for String Orchestra, JW VI / 2 [19:03]
String Quartet No. 1, JW VII / 8, arr. Tognetti [18:01]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Sextet, H 224A, arr. Martinů [18:23]
Pavel HAAS (1899-1944)
Study for string orchestra, completed by Lubomir Peduzzi [9:09]
Janáček Chamber Orchestra
rec. 2, 3, 9 May, 2009 (Sextet, Study, Quartet) and 6 September 2010 (Suite), Church of the Czechoslovak Hussite, Ostrava, Czech Republic
CHANDOS CHAN 10678 [64:36]

You’d be forgiven for thinking the Czech string music market was cornered by the lovely romantic serenades by Dvorák and Suk. But this brilliant collection, ranging from 1877 to 1950, happily proves otherwise, bringing together works by LeoŠ Janáček (early and late periods), Pavel Haas, and Bohuslav Martinů.

Janacek’s Suite, leading the disc off, is not what one would expect from the composer: it’s a very early work, hailing from 1877, when the 23-year-old was still under the spell of Dvorák’s style and, indeed, had only written a single student work for orchestral ensemble before (an elegy for strings which received its premiere, presumably after years of being lost, in 1988). But there is, already at this early date, an interesting contrast between very ‘romantic’ sections of the six-movement suite and portions, like the heart-tugging, almost Tchaikovsky-like fifth movement adagio, and less overtly lyrical passages, like the opening minute or so, which betray the rhythmically bold, harmonically unique style which Janáček would be cultivating 40 years later. The fourth movement sounds a bit like a gruff Joachim Raff. We may not quite be hearing adult Janáček, but this is a charming suite which does bear hints of the composer to come.

Martinů arranged his own string sextet for chamber orchestra, and it is an excellent work written for six players in 1932 and larger ensemble in 1950. The first movement begins with a slight pensiveness but the piece unfolds in cheerier and more rhythmically engaging ways; the lyrical coda allows light to shine through. The slow movement is another short journey, but into more shadowy regions. The finale evolves in the opposite direction, moving over its course toward an irrepressibly catchy folk-rhapsody. Somebody has described it as a Martinů symphony for the strings, and it is beefy enough and engaging enough to deserve the comparison.

Pavel Haas was one of the many talented Czech composers to die in the Holocaust; he may now be best remembered for inspiring the exceptional string quartet which bears his name (and for his three quartets, which that ensemble now champions). The Study was written for a string orchestra in the Terezín concentration camp, under the leadership of Karel Ančerl, and was performed there twice. After the war (and Haas’s death) Ancerl managed to track down all the individual parts except the double bass, which was (with permission of the composer’s family) reconstructed by Lubomír Peduzzi. The work is a superb one, cramming a lot of expression into its nine minutes; the language will be familiar to those who know and love Haas’ quartets.

We conclude with more Janáček, this time the ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ string quartet arranged for chamber orchestra by the violinist-conductor Richard Tognetti. Tognetti has recorded the arranged quartet for Chandos with his Australian Chamber Orchestra along with Szymanowski and an arrangement of Pavel Haas’s second quartet. This performance by the Janáček Chamber Orchestra is speedier than many a string-quartet performance (compare 18:01 to the Pavel Haas Quartet’s 18:51). There’s some simply exceptional playing here: in the fastest, most vigorous moments the Janáček Chamber Orchestra really gets to show off and they relish the opportunity. Tognetti smartly retains solos at certain moments, a practice which keeps the ear engaged and which keeps the music sounding idiomatically ‘true.’

There is basically nothing to criticize about this release. Only one of the four works here is appearing in its original guise, but they all engage the ear and they fit together stylistically—in other words, it’s a great program. The orchestra play beautifully, with the required rhythmic precision, and, where the music allows it (like the Suite’s fifth movement), great poetry as well. Solos are superb all around. For fans of Janáček, Haas, and Martinů, this is an hour of guaranteed satisfaction.

Postscript: if you like what’s on this disc, try the Philadelphia Orchestra’s 2005 recording of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, which comes coupled with a fantastic Czech work for strings, the Partita by Gideon Klein. Like Pavel Haas’s Study, Klein’s Partita was composed in the Terezín concentration camp, and it too is a small, achingly promising masterpiece.

Brian Reinhart

For fans of Janáček, Haas, and Martinů, an hour of guaranteed satisfaction.