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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No.1 JW VII/8 'The Kreutzer Sonata' (1923) [18:17]
On an Overgrown Path (Book 1) (1901-08) (arr. string quartet by Jarmil Burghauser) [28:35]
String Quartet No 2 JW VII/13 'Intimate letters' (1928) [26:17]
Quartetto Energie Nove
rec. Auditorio Stelio Molo, Lugano, Switzerland, November & December 2013, March 2014
DYNAMIC CDS7708 [73:32]

The cover of this disc proudly announces that this is the "world premiere recording of the new Bärenreiter critical edition" of the two (surviving) Janáček string quartets. These works are amongst the greatest examples of the genre written in the 20th Century. As such they have been performed and recorded with great success by many of the great string quartets. Which leaves the prudent collector asking; just how different are these critical editions and in the face of such competition how good is the Quartetto Energie Nove at performing these absurdly hard works.

To answer the second question first; the Quartetto Energie Nove are very very good indeed. I must admit never to having heard of them before let alone heard them so this was a very exciting discovery. They are Swiss-based; 3 of the 4 seem to be members of the Orchestra Della Svizzera Italiana - but the membership are drawn from around the world, the leader from Italy, the 2nd violin Swiss, the violist Australian of Central European heritage(?), and the cellist German. The strength of their playing as a quartet is a tremendous sense of unity - while there are four distinctive musical voices at work the ensemble in terms of bow stroke, note lengths, intonation and vibrato speed is remarkably coherent. Additionally - and this is vital in this particular repertoire - they are willing to play Janáček at the extremes that he demands in these near-orchestral scores. This is not music for the faint-hearted and the performances honour that often expressionist aesthetic.

As to the significance of the 'original' editions to my ear that is more of interest than necessity. Slightly frustratingly the liner alludes to the differences without actually specifying them. Apparently they are mainly in the 2nd Quartet "Intimate Letters" so it has been a case of following the standard score while listening to this version and spotting the differences - a less than perfect scenario! Using my all-too fallible ear it appears that nearly all of the changes are practical/performance related ones - this is not a case of major compositional reworkings. The leader of the Moravian Quartet who gave the work's premiere in 1928 - a month after the composer's death - was František Kudláček and he instigated many of the amendments that were incorporated into the published score. The two main ones transplant stratospheric viola writing into the more manageable violin register. The first such passage is in the 3rd movement - figures 1-3 in the 'standard' UE score [around the 1:00 minute mark - track 17] - the viola has the melody lead which passes to the second violin at figure 2. Not here; the viola keeps playing going up to a G sharp two and a half octaves above middle C. The other main passage is the very end of the work where the 'top' line again stays in the viola whereas 'normally' it has passed to first violin. The viola of the Quartetto Energie Nove, Ivan Vukčević, plays these challenging passages quite superbly - the tone of the instrument in this register more cutting than a 'sweeter' violin. Elsewhere the differences seem to be more use of pizzicato either to mark passages more clearly or to give a folksier character. Most telling is the very opening to the 4th movement which has an aptly stamping rumbustious character from all the players which the heavy pizzicati chords reinforce.

One other observation from following the standard score while listening to this original version is that there seems to be extra editing of the work. There are a lot of dynamics and graduations of dynamics marked in the standard score not present in the current performance. But elsewhere the players clearly diligently do play very specific markings both in terms of tempo and dynamic so I can only assume that the ones they apparently miss out are not there in the original. So characteristic of Janáček's sound-world are extended passages marked sul poniticello [the glassy overtone-laden sound achieved by bowing literally 'on the bridge'] as well as the arpeggiated musical cells and these are played with an ideal sense of manic intensity. To my ear these performances are a near ideal approach to the composer's conception - regardless of the edition used. Quite what the object of Janáček's obsessive devotion, Kamila Stösslová, made of these "Intimate Letters" one can only imagine. Written in an extraordinary burst of creativity - just 3 weeks in early 1928 barely six months before the composer's death - this remains one of the most remarkably unique and compelling string quartets of the last century. Nearly ninety years after its premiere it still sounds remarkably modern and in the hands of this exceptional string quartet the sheer range and wildness of the invention is revealed anew.

I have not made a similar comparison between the standard and new editions in the earlier quartet, which is subtitled The Kreutzer Sonata after the Tolstoy story, for the simple reason that Janáček was alive to supervise an authorised edition in 1924 - I am sure there are typos and clarifications that the new edition corrects but to the innocent ear it sounds very similar. Again, the Quartetto Energie Nove provide a searching and wholly convincing traversal of this wonderful score. As mentioned, although great care has been taken in matching the voices of the quartet the players emerge as four distinct personalities. Second violin Barbara Ciannamea playing a Testore has a huskier darker tone than leader Hans Liviabella on a Gagliano. Violist Ivan Vukčević is placed on the outside of the quartet to the right and his instrument - another Gagliano - leads the texture with ease when required. The liner mentions that Janáček abandoned the idea of using a viola d'amore in the 2nd quartet which I suspect appealed to him initially simply because of its name but proved unequal to the task of being an equal partner acoustically. Cellist Felix Vogelsang's Amati is another powerful instrument providing the rock-steady foundations for this tonally fluid and often ambiguous music.

In the age of the CD, the two quartets alone do not constitute a 'full' disc - although the Emerson and Belcea Quartets choose just such an option. How to find a suitable coupling has exercised many a famous quartet. Other composers from Haas to Dvorak, Suk, Smetana and Martinu have been roped in. The Medici quartet turned to Fauré which strikes me as one of the less obvious possibilities. An unexpected and spectacularly successful bonus on this new disc is the presence of the first recording of Jamil Burghauser's transcription for quartet of ten pieces from Janáček's piano cycle; On an Overgrown Path. This turns out to be far from 'just' a filler - at twenty eight minutes it is in fact the longest of the three works recorded here. Burghauser's name lives on for his creation of a definitive catalogue of Dvorak's music - hence references to "B. numbers". He also worked on editions of Janáček's music to less critical acclaim since he tried to simplify some of Janáček's notation. When Burghauser made these quartet transcriptions is not at all clear but they are fantastically successful. For anyone who enjoys the sound of this composer on strings this will be an absolute delight. Burghauser's great skill is to make these sound authentically idiomatic for strings. He clearly inhabits and understands the composer's sound-world and more over how to transfer that to the quartet idiom. It might be a heresy but I have to say I have never enjoyed these pieces more than in this version. The range of colour texture and sonority seems so right and frankly more interesting than in the original piano version.

Janáček gives each movement an overtly descriptive title and Burghauser manages to reinforce that picture. Try No.5 [track 9] They Chattered Like Swallows which combines Janáček's fascination for a distilled folk-idiom alongside speech-like rhythms with a wonderfully witty evocation of village gossips. The preceding Madonna of Frydek invokes a sombrely powerful chorale-like chorale over rocking string figurations. The closing The Barn Owl has not flown away [track 14] is possibly the most impressive of all - a ghostly owl calling from a night wood combined with robust monophonic hymn-like tune. Again I have nothing but praise for the playing and interpretation of the Quartetto Energie Nove. I am amazed that these wonderful transcriptions have not appeared on disc before. The two main quartets are wonderful - but we already know they are wonderful; the Overgrown Path transcriptions make an already tempting disc irresistible.

Well, very nearly irresistible. My only only complaint is the quality of the recorded sound. Dynamic have opted for a very close rather over-lit sound. Every intake of breath is very audible but more disconcerting is the tonal brightness. Not that the excellence of the lower part playing does not register - it does. Just that this is music making under a rather harsh glare. Given that the players do push their instruments to their extremes it is all the more remarkable that it is as impressive as it is. Alongside them I find the excellent Lindsay Quartet on ASV nimble, articulate and highly skilled but more 'placed' without the fire and wildness that is often near the surface in this composer's works. If only Dynamic had placed the quartet six feet further back into the acoustic my cup would be running over. The players provide all the dynamic and tonal range you could possibly hope for - the production team should have trusted that that was enough. Turning down the volume from my usual level ameliorates the effect somewhat but at the cost of diminishing the bravura attack of the playing. One advantage of this close, occasionally oppressive sound is that the four instruments are very clearly placed in a semi-circle in front of the listener. Even without a score there is great clarity in the way Janáček shares the primary melodic material around the group.

The liner is in Italian, English and German. It is reasonably good but lacks the detail about the use of the new critical edition which would make it even more valuable. Careless proofing calls the arranger Jamil Buirghauser on the back cover of the CD. Strange that this was recorded over two years ago and has had to wait so long for release. Time will tell whether the editions used here will supersede the earlier less authentic ones. Ultimately the quality of the playing and music-making trumps the concerns about the engineering but this was close to being an exceptional disc and one any admirer of this composer should hear.

Nick Barnard

 

 




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