Volume 2 of Toccata Classics' complete cycle of Anton Reicha's string quartets picks up where the recently-released first left off - see review of Volume 1
. It does this both in historical terms – the final work of his op.48, his earliest publication in the genre, and straight onto op.49 – and technically. We hear another eloquently provocative batch of interpretations by the Kreutzer Quartet in good audio. The accompanying notes are peerless in their quality.
Reicha was a friend to Beethoven and taught Berlioz, Liszt, Gounod, Franck and Onslow, yet for all his connections he is remembered today at best as the composer of a substantial series of comparatively conservative woodwind quintets. There are widely recommended recordings on Naxos (nor should we forget the admirable cycle on Crystal
. Ed.). The rank neglect of Reicha's superb string quartets is utterly baffling. According to Toccata, only one had been recorded previously. Annotator Ron Drummond claims, strongly but with justification, that "the absence of Reicha's quartets from the repertoire seriously impoverishes our understanding of the evolution of the string quartet".
Music writer Norman Lebrecht has recently enthused about these works, but his conclusion, that they are "indispensable entry points into Beethoven's inner world" is misleading and misguided. Reicha deserves to be considered independently, not as "the missing link between early and middle period Beethoven". The quartets do indeed originate chronologically between Beethoven's op.18 and his 'Razumovsky' quartets, and there are elements of both sound-worlds mirrored in Reicha. Yet he was no slavish borrower of his friend's ideas, and whilst he was as melodically fertile as Beethoven, he happily 'out-dissonates' him in his fearless experimentation. This is self-evident as far as the breathtakingly imaginative C minor quartet is concerned. Reicha himself referred to his "great penchant for doing the unusual in composition", which comes out, in Drummond's words, "as if Reicha in his string quartets overheard late Beethoven and late Schubert, overheard Schumann and Brahms and Dvořák, overheard Bartók and modern jazz."
Kreutzer violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved, in his own detailed and thought-provoking notes - which, as usual, should be required reading for all musicians – reveals the challenge for musicians: "The unifying feature of a rehearsal of Reicha's chamber music is the number of times that the 'musicking' will break up into exclamations of disbelief, wonder, outrage and laughter: 'He's not doing that?' and 'I don’t believe it!' are the most common exclamations to punctuate a Reicha rehearsal." In short, anyone with an interest in the string quartet should reflect on Drummond's words, and then act to ensure the progression of this vital project.
As indicated above, the audio is good, with the caveat that the recording was made at the same venue as volume 1, meaning the same issue applies: high brightness levels make the instruments sound slightly harsh at times, although it should be noted here that three of the four players are using baroque-period instruments. Toccata have not been overly generous with the running time, it is true, but in compensation that could mean there are, at the current rate of progress, another dozen or more volumes to look forward to. The final word goes to Skærved: "When I was young, [Reicha] was talked of as something dry, a mere theorist. His music, played and lived, reveals him to be very far from being an abstract thinker: he is truly flesh and bone."
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Comment from a reader
I have enjoyed both volumes 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.