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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 (c.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]

I was pleased to be given the opportunity to review this recent release from CPO. Their audacious programming of off the beaten track repertoire is something I find intriguing. None of these composers have I encountered previously, so I approached this disc of Croatian chamber music with an eager sense of adventure.

Božidar Kunc earned the nickname "the Croatian poet of the piano" for his distinguished pianism. His concertizing tended to focus on French Impressionism, with Debussy being a firm favorite, as well as promoting his native music. He honed his skills, both as a composer and pianist, at the Zagreb Academy of Music. I was interested to discover that he frequently accompanied his sister Zinka Milanov, the dramatic soprano of New York Metropolitan Opera fame. Although born in Zagreb, Kunc spent the last years of life working in the States, where he died in 1964. His sole String Quartet displays colourful harmonies set against an impressionistic background, with the occasional foray into native folklore. It’s also enveloped in an intoxicating exoticism. The first movement hits the ground running, asserting itself from the start in swirling and buoyant vein. This contrasts strikingly with the sombre, static quality of the slow movement. The finale is substantial in length at 13 minutes. After a brief introduction, the music hots up and those potent folksy elements make their presence felt.

Czech born conductor and composer Fran Lhotka contributed much to the development of the Croatian music scene. He was educated in Prague and was a one-time student of Dvořák. Renowned as an educator, he taught many young musicians, and wrote text books on harmony and conducting. As a composer his output included symphonic works, chamber music and a ballet entitled “The Devil in the Village”, which is his pičce de résistance. The Elegie and Scherzo for String quartet dates from 1931, and was premiered by the Zagreb Quartet in February 1934. The Elegie is intensely lyrical, with wistful ruminations which have a melancholic underlay. Pizzicatos establish the dance rhythms of the Scherzo. Its foot-tapping swagger I find irresistible.

Josip Štolcer Slavenski’s teachers at the Budapest Conservatory included Zoltán Kodály, Albert Siklós and Béla Bartók. With that sort of pedigree it’s hardly surprising that he was innovative and open to the new musical trends surfacing in Europe at the time. Musicologist Jim Samson described him as "undoubtedly one of a very small handful of truly major composers from South East Europe in the first half of the twentieth century". After his studies he spent some time in Zagreb and Paris, before settling in Belgrade. Standing proud amongst his considerable oeuvre are four string quartets. The Sebastian Quartet perform his Quartet No. 4, penned in 1938. It’s a transcription, made in 1949, of his Balkan Dances Suite for Orchestra. In four movements, the first brims over with zing and pizzazz, whilst the second is broody and contemplative. Movement three’s tight rhythmic pulse contrasts with the metric freedom of the finale, which sounds improvisatory - music created on the wing.

I must comment on the impressive artwork which dons the booklet and inner back tray: it’s Josip Generalic’s “Hügelige Landschaft mit Blumen und Bäumen”. Its kaleidoscopic colour scheme complements to perfection the music of this attractive release.

The Sebastian Quartet, bolstered by the congenial acoustic of the chosen venue, bring these ingenious works to life. Their infectious enthusiasm and idiomatic playing should win this music many friends.

Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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