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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 92 (1941) [21:51]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 2, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ (1923) [17:50]
Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b. 1960)
Tenebrae (2000) [14:31]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80 (1847) [26:34]
Calidore String Quartet
rec. 2017, Alpheton New Maltings, Suffolk, UK

This CD is entitled ‘Resilience’. The argument, according to the Calidore Quartet’s own booklet note, is that each work was composed when its composer was undergoing a period of personal crisis or upheaval. The power of music to heal, to soothe, and generally to promote the inner strength needed to overcome life’s challenges is at the heart of the argument. None the less, I was intrigued to read that it was the American presidential election of 2016 that provided the stimulus for the theme.

The performance of Janáček’s sublime First Quartet is one of great virtuosity. Janáček did his players no favours in setting much of the work in six flats, and even then the music rarely stays in any one key for more than a bar at a time. Add to that the frequently stratospheric writing for each instrument and all those hyper-rapid ostinato figures and you have a challenge on your hands. These young players rise to the challenge magnificently. Despite the copious tempo and dynamic markings a fair amount of interpretative freedom is possible, and there are felicitous touches in each movement. The group’s vision of the work has clearly been prepared to the last detail, to result in a unified and totally convincing whole. This is music that requires playing of the utmost passion, and much of the writing seems to invite the players to make nasty noises – a tremolando played fortissimo on or near the bridge, for example. Performers must agonise over this. The miracle of the work, however, is that the composer sets such moments alongside many others of breath-taking beauty. Never, one feels, do these players lose sight of the fact that the music, for all its violence and passion, should be a thing of beauty. This is a performance of Janáček’s short masterpiece – so much said in so little time! – to rank amongst the very finest.

Prokofiev’s Second Quartet was new to me, and I am very happy to make its acquaintance. It was composed during 1941 when the composer and other major figures of the cultural scene were evacuated from Moscow, nominally for their own protection. He was sent to the extreme South-west of the country, to the town of Naltchik, less than a hundred miles north of the border with Georgia today. There he became fascinated by the traditional music of the region, whose themes, rhythms and instrumental techniques found their way into the Quartet. They serve to unify a work that can seem diffuse beside the extraordinarily integrated outpouring that is Janáček’s quartet. A touch of irony, particularly in the finale, helps us to identify Prokofiev as the composer, despite these new and rather unexpected elements. But there is a gentleness about it as well that belies, somewhat, the circumstances of its composition. The Calidores have the measure of the work just as they do the Janáček.

Tenebrae, by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov was also new to me, and may well be the first music by this composer to have come my way. I have tried my best, but have been unable to get much out of it. The opening passage evokes the composer’s small son’s wide-eyed wonder as he encounters the marvels of the universe in the New York planetarium. The serenity of the slow-moving melody over an omnipresent, oscillating accompaniment is affecting enough, but doesn’t really lead anywhere, and the central section, intended to reflect the violence Golijov witnessed during a visit to Israel during 2000, is insufficiently contrasted to achieve his aims. At about the ten-minute mark the oscillating accompaniment is transformed into repeated, harsh chords, but that’s about it as far as violence is concerned. Whereas the Janáček and Prokofiev works are clearly conceived in terms of a string quartet – though Janáček stretches quartet writing to its absolute limit – Golijov’s musical ideas could easily be transferred to another musical medium without any significant loss.

Mendelssohn composed his sixth and final string quartet following the death of his sister, Fanny, completing it only months before his own death later in that same year of 1847. The diminished harmonies and harsh tremolando accompaniment figures in the first movement, not the mention the extraordinary, short presto coda, certainly give the impression of a composer working in the white heat of inspiration provoked by despair. Expect to be astounded by the violence here if you know Mendelssohn only from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the symphonies and the Violin Concerto. The second movement is harsh and heavily rhythmic, its trio section calm but curiously equivocal. The booklet notes state that the composer “reflects on his love for his sister” in the third movement. It is, indeed, an oasis of calm, but not without its moments of bitterness. Only here do I feel that this outstanding ensemble don’t quite realise the composer’s aims: greater attention to piano and pianissimo markings would have been welcome. On the other hand their remarkable virtuosity, and in particular that of the first violinist Jeffrey Myers, is stunningly evident in the finale, a typical Mendelssohnian moto perpetuo finish, except that this time the music is unremittingly grim and imbued with a terrible anger.

William Hedley



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