Bohemian composer Anton Reicha was born Antonín Rejcha, but soon moved to Germany where he adopted the German version of his name used on this CD. Later, following his naturalisation in France, he assumed the French equivalent Antoine, under which most of his music was published. Reicha was not much of a nationalist, to put it mildly - he soon forsook, even forgot, his native Czech language as he grew fluent in French and German.
In Germany Reicha became a dear friend to one of his exact contemporaries, a fellow called Beethoven, to the extent that they studied each other's work-in-progress. Such is the fickle nature of history, however, that Reicha's name today is barely recognised, despite the fact that he also taught the likes of Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, Franck and Onslow. At the very best he may be known to some as the composer of a substantial series of comparatively conservative woodwind quintets.
A good example of this cultural neglect can be found - or not, as it were - in the string quartets, of which, according to Toccata, only one has ever been recorded. New Grove's only mention of them is in passing, that "cadentially elided, thematically connected movements shape the String Quartet op.52". Yet given that Reicha was a composer influenced by - and exerting an influence over - Beethoven, creator of arguably the greatest string quartet cycle in history, the immense value of Toccata's project to record all of Reicha's is obvious. Co-annotator Ron Drummond explores Reicha's relationship with Beethoven in his booklet essay, 'Introducing Anton Reicha's Vienna String Quartets', which is long and fascinating, even if it does go too far in claiming Reicha's opp.48 and 49 quartets to be "a very explicit response to Beethoven's op.18". Elsewhere he has written: "I am convinced that the absence of Reicha's quartets from the repertoire seriously impoverishes our understanding of the evolution of the string quartet - that's how significant Reicha's quartets are." This time he may well be right.
Drummond claims "at least 37" quartets for Reicha, excluding fragments and pedagogy, substantially more than those listed in New Grove. He makes up the figures with tantalising mention of fourteen new works unearthed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 2000. In any case, Drummond helpfully lists all the known quartets, bringing the reader right up to date with scholarship.
The three quartets of op.48 - no.3 should follow on volume 2 - were Reicha's earliest published works in this genre, part of a batch appearing in Leipzig in or just after 1804. Chronologically they follow Beethoven's op.18 quartet sextet, but in some respects they are more redolent of late Haydn - only with lots of 'wrong' notes and parts, as if old Haydn were still a young prankster. Reicha's highly original experimentation is certainly bold enough to have raised audience eyebrows constantly, whilst remaining 'tasteful' enough not to have sparked off any rioting.
As for the recording project, who better to entrust with this massive cycle than the Kreutzer Quartet, one of the UK's finest? In fact, despite their familiarity with the core Classical-Romantic repertoire, the Kreutzers' true expertise arguably lies in more contemporary, as often as not modernist, repertoire. There are several ensembles that might have been that little bit more persuasive - these proto-Romantic works have quite different stylistic and expressive demands to the quartets of, say, Gloria Coates (review
) or Michael Finnissy (Métier MSV 92011). In the C major Quartet there are indeed one or two timing and intonation issues, but in fairness the Kreutzers settle down well for the G major.
Toccata's audio quality is good as usual, albeit rather on the bright side. In his own booklet essay, 'Reicha's Quartets From Where I Sit', Peter Sheppard Skærved is typically informative, although he can sound somewhat highbrow and, like Drummond, does get rather bogged down at times in minutiae. His likening of Reicha's quartets to different sets of Beethoven's, Mozart's and Haydn's results in a blizzard of opus numbers and key names, for example.
Overall this is a decent start - with some room for improvement - to a cycle of quartets that may well be one of the most historically important recorded for many years.
Contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk
Comment from a reader
I have enjoyed both this and the next volume, and agree with your reviewer on the whole. But I think there is room for a lot of improvement in the interpretation of these quartets as string players get the hang of what Rejcha before his professorship is about. The best Rejcha chamber performances for me on disc so far are those by the Guarneri Trio Prague of the op 101/1-3 Piano trios (SU4057-2). These have a wonderful energy and rhythmic vitality (somewhat like early Beethoven, e.g. the piano and string trios) yet absolutely a different, inspired and individual composer. They make you wonder how much time Rejcha and Beethoven must have spent challenging, arguing, agreeing, disagreeing and intriguing each other. They did send their music to their Leipzig publisher in the same package.