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Božidar KUNC (1903-1964)
String Quartet in F major, Op.14 (1931) [28:04]
Fran LHOTKA (1883-1962)
Elegie and Scherzo (1931) [13:14]
Josip Štolcer SLAVENSKI (1896-1955)
String Quartet No.4 (1938/1949) [15:08]
Sebastian String Quartet
rec. 2018, Church of the Holy Mother of the Seven Sorrows, Žumberak, Croatia
CPO 555 297-2 [56:29]

The album’s primary-coloured and charmingly naďve artwork – a 1961 painting by Josip Generalic – sets the scene for this triptych of Croatian quartet works. Its boldness is reflected in the recordings’ church acoustic, which is itself big-boned and the opposite of microscopic. Yet it fills out sufficiently with enough detail to capture the myriad pleasures to be encountered.

Zagreb-born Božidar Kunc was a much-admired piano soloist and also served as accompanist to his sister Zinka Kunc – better known as Zinka Milanov, a star at the Met in New York. His only String Quartet dates from 1931 and reflects elements of folkloricism that are not always so evident in his other pieces, such as the Concertos. There are trenchant unisons, and coloristic incident throughout, not least in the opening movement, whilst the central slow movement is quietly expressive, with dampened dynamics and a tendency to revisit themes but which finally resolves to the minor. The long finale features fast material punctuated by bristling pizzicati and there’s plenty of earthy drama in the pesante writing even if, for all its variety and incident, this finale is a touch long. There may seem to be some affiliations with Bartók in this work but there’s a great deal of personality and exuberance in Kunc’s quartet which is well worth a listen.

Josip Štolcer Slavenski was seven years older than Kunc and was a forward-looking musical thinker and composer. About his quartet CPO is contradictory. The track listing claims it was written in 1941, the booklet that it dates from 1938. It is, in any case, a transcription of his Balkan Dances (4 balkanske igre), an orchestral suite that dates from 1938, though reading sources elsewhere it seems possible that Slavenksi only brought out the quartet version after the war, in 1948-49. These dances, well-known in Croatia, are zesty, exciting examples of village music, though complicated further because the central two dances were originally from a piano suite plundered for the orchestral suite. The slow dance is long-breathed, the brisk scherzo country music, and the finale, which flits back and forth between expressive states sounds a little like Janáček. It’s the most vibrant music in a delicious work.

If you consider the Czech-born Fran Lhotka an interloper, he was a profoundly important figure in the development of a native Croatian compositional line. A student of Dvořák he later worked at the Zagreb Academy and wrote significant textbooks. His best-known work is the ballet The Devil in the Village, second only to Gotovac’s Ero the Joker in the Croatian popularity stakes. Elegie and Scherzo dates from his Zagreb years, and is a bipartite piece. The Elegie is, like Kunc’s quartet, infused with folk drama but of a rather more ambivalent kind, at least in the Elegie, whereas the Scherzo is as vividly fast and furious as one would want from a folk dance. Is Lhotka’s Violin Concerto going to be included in CPO’s Croatian travels on disc?

The experienced Sebastian String Quartet take the honours. It’s been very active on the Croatia Records label and has proselytised on behalf of the country’s music for decades now, with the odd change of personnel. The quartet plays with fire and clarity and shows a true understanding of underlying rhythm and the function of rubato in the dance-patterned music.

Jonathan Woolf

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