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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1, JW VII/8 Kreutzer Sonata (1923) [18:42]
String Quartet No. 2, JW VII/13 Intimate Letters (1928) [27:39]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
String Quartet No. 3, H 183 (1929) [12:43]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Hélène Clément (viola); John Myerscough (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 2014
CHANDOS CHAN10848 [59:29]

Having listened to these performances of the Janáček quartets more than once and compared them with other versions in my collection, I come away with a very mixed reaction to this newcomer. The Doric String Quartet play superbly and the sound has both warmth and brilliance. There are so many quartets performing and recording Janáček now that one is really spoilt for choice. While the native Czech ensembles have this music in their blood, the foreigners often either don’t have a clue as to what makes this composer tick or they try too hard to be idiomatic. I found earlier accounts by the Juilliard and Emerson quartets to be technically above reproach, and in the latter case well recorded, but showing little in the way of true understanding of the composer. The Dante Quartet (Meridian), however, came much closer to the mark, which brings me to the new version here.

The Doric String Quartet have received accolades for their efforts on behalf of Haydn, Schumann, Walton, Korngold and others. By their showing here, they obviously believe strongly in Janáček’s idiom. Their failing, it seems, is they try too hard and this results in some exaggeration in interpretation. They approach both quartets dramatically, occasionally overemphasizing the contrast between the slower, more lyrical passages with the faster, manic ones. They begin the Quartet No. 1 with much rubato and everything seems either very slow, albeit with a wonderfully warm sound, or harsh and bright in the fast sections. The quartet does contain plenty of emotion, but it is built into the music. The Doric seem to apply it externally. Compared to this, the Emersons sound tame and could use some of the adrenalin the Doric provide in spades. Another feature that bothers me, but may not bother others, is their use of portamento. It becomes excessive during the first 30 seconds of the Quartet No. 1’s finale.

Overall, I found more to like in the Quartet No. 2. Even there, though, the Doric fall prey to exaggeration, especially in the sul ponticello passages of the first movement, as they did to similar passages in the third movement of Quartet No. 1. On the plus side, tempos are standard and much is beautifully projected. The viola and cello produce a rich, glorious sound, which is almost Brahmsian, during slow sections. They set a good tempo for the dance-like finale, neither too fast (Smetana Quartet) nor too slow. On one of my favourite recordings by a Czech quartet, the eponymous Janáček Quartet (Supraphon), the finale is taken at a deliberate tempo that works because it is instinctively felt. For a general recommendation regarding these quartets, I would stick with a native Czech group — the aforementioned Janáček, the Talich (either Supraphon or Calliope), or the Škampa (Supraphon), among others. Nevertheless, anyone who heard these performances by the Doric String Quartet in concert would be blown away by their sheer immediacy and seeming spontaneity.

To make this disc more attractive, Chandos has added an appropriate, if unusual filler, Martinů’s short Quartet No. 3. In the past many recordings of the Janáček quartets included no extras — the superb Škampa — and so represented poor value as to quantity if not quality. Although Martinů composed his third quartet only a year after Janáček’s last one, it comes from an entirely different world. He wrote seven string quartets between 1918 and 1947, the third being his shortest. The Quartet No. 3, like its predecessor, was composed in Paris where Martinů was studying with Albert Roussel. Right from the start, the energetic and rhythmically busy first movement betrays the influence of Martinů’s teacher. Yet some of the themes also possess a Czech flavour, and the slow, second movement with its brooding, close, blues-tinged harmony, evokes the jazz atmosphere of Paris in those years. The third, and last, movement returns to the exhilarating energy of the first one. At 1:03 there is an attractive jazzy theme, with sliding strings, before the first theme returns. Later some jazz-influenced chords appear and the work ends abruptly. The frequent use of portamento by the Doric seems more suitable to this work than to the Janáček, but then I am not as familiar with the Martinů. I found their account of this quartet very convincing and well played.

Despite my reservations, this disc should appeal to all followers of the Doric String Quartet, as well as to those wanting this particular combination of works. For the Janáček, though, I would want to sample these performances first and would not in any case prefer them to those of the Czech ensembles noted above. I will likely listen to these new accounts from time to time when I want to hear a fresh approach to the music. Chandos has included an attractive booklet with nice photos and a good discussion of the works by Graham Melville-Mason.

Leslie Wright

Another review ...

I find these very unsatisfactory realisations of Janáček’s quartets. The Doric Quartet never really seems to get to grips with their lexicon, instead becoming prone to exaggeration and a piecemeal approach that tends to become sapping. The opening of Intimate Letters is strangely lethargic, the ghostly viola passage teetering on the edge of audibility, and the contrasts in the music become elided. Those little drooping figures later on are a touch overstated and the crunching attacks too coruscating. Given their tendency to compartmentalise phrasing - to break up rather than build up – the quartet seems more mosaic-like than usual. There is a terrific amount of detail to be heard, undeniably, from these four instrumentalists but it tends to remain incidental. Rhythms don’t sound especially plausible. There’s a precedent for the slowish tempo they take for the finale, as the Janáček Quartet was not much faster but what a difference between the rustic Moravian dance incarnated by the Janáček group and the somewhat sentimentalised approach of the Doric whose cellist is altogether too brutal here.

Things don’t improve in the Kreutzer Sonata where once again the Doric seems too keen to make sonic statements than to get down to the trickier business of understanding the quartet’s narrative from the inside. It’s not a question of tempo, as the Smetana Quartet’s accounts of these works varied quite significantly on this point over the years. What remained constant, though, was their understanding of the underlying argument. For the Doric the music’s urgency feels applied rather than experienced and unlike the Panocha their approach is constantly bedevilled by fraught gestures. It wouldn’t really be helpful for me to go through things on a movement-by-movement basis, but certain moments give the listener the gist. Try the visceral moments in the third movement; they are quite intense enough without the sul ponticello passage sounding quite so horrible, and tearing the music to shreds.

The ‘filler’ is Martinů’s Third Quartet. Oh dear, here we go again. Try the Emperor or, better, the Panocha to hear what the Doric’s messily phrased, disjoined approach is missing. I can’t quite believe they are so incapable of establishing a proper sense of rhythm in this and the companion works. In all events on this evidence they seem to have little or no affinity for Czech music. I also don’t much like the inflated sound and chamber orchestra approach brought to bear.

I appreciate that this group is an intense and passionate one but it strikes me that the Janáček performances are too full of exaggerations to be in any way successful. The two works are passionate enough on their own terms without requiring these kinds of disparate gestures.

Happily, I can say that Graham Melville-Mason’s booklet notes are excellent.

Jonathan Woolf