Hagen Quartett

Janácek: Streichquartette Nos. 1 & 2; Wolf: Italienische Serenade

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Few chamber works rise to the autobiographical level achieved in the two string quartets of Leos Janácek. The First Quartet, subtitled "Kreutzer Sonata," depicts scenes from the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy and tells the story of an adulterous wife and her resulting death at her husband's hand. Janácek himself was locked in a loveless marriage and found many parallels (without the homicide) in his life. The Second Quartet, "Intimate Letters", draws inspiration from the unrequited love affair the composer had with Kamila Stosslova and the hundreds of passionate letters he was to write to the woman half his age. Both quartets are indicative of Janácek's late works, blazing his own path irrespective of trends elsewhere or the opinion of his critics. They are filled with lofty technical demands, extended playing techniques, complex harmonies and rhythm, and difficult ensemble challenges. It is therefore difficult to come by recordings of these two impassioned works that are both musically informed and technically solid; all too often, intonation suffers mightily in these taxing quartets. The Hagen Quartett, heard here in a Newton Classics reissue of a 1988 recording, proves that listeners can indeed have the best of both worlds. The Hagens play with almost impossibly precise technique, virtually spotless intonation, and a fluid sense of balance that allows every line and every note of Janácek's scores to easily be heard. What's more, they brilliantly convey the emotional, autobiographical nature of the two works in such a way that even someone unfamiliar with their origins can sense the tension, drama, and angst. The disc concludes with an equally enjoyable performance of Hugo Wolf's Italian Serenade.

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