Talich Quartet / Vanbrugh Quartet

Smetana: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2: Suk: Meditation on St. Wenceslas

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The small U.S. reissue house Alto has specialized in rediscoveries of recordings perhaps two decades old, presenting them with an enviable combination of expert remastering and low price. This release apparently combines material from two releases in the early '90s; there are two different string quartets, recording in two different locations. The Vanbrugh Quartet, featured in the Janácek String Quartet No. 1, "The Kreutzer Sonata," is not quite the technical equal of the Talich Quartet heard on the first three works on the program, but the combination of these works makes a great deal of sense. Despite its formal movement designations, Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, "From My Life," is a programmatic work, with detailed descriptions supplied by Smetana: he intended the music to evoke scenes from the recollections he experienced as deafness (caused, it seems, by too much hunting) encroached. The Talich's performance is very fine; too many groups overplay Smetana's quartets, which should have just the sort of haze of lyricism the Talich gives them here. The String Quartet No. 1 has the right quality of a chamber piece by the composer of the symphonic poem Die Moldau. The String Quartet No. 2 in D minor is a more agitated but still inward work, described by Smetana as a depiction his feelings after the crisis of his deafness but lacking a concrete program. The work makes a perfect bridge to the Janácek String Quartet No. 1, which again is a programmatic, somehow psychological work based on Tolstoy's novella of sexual desire. It seems to owe a lot more to Smetana than to the more temporally proximate Dvorák, and it's fascinating to hear these works together; Janácek is more frequently paired with his emotionally murky contemporaries. Josef Suk's Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn "St. Wenceslas," Op. 35a, written for either string quartet or string orchestra, is a sort of intermission in the sequence of intense and personal music, and it allows the Talich players to display their lovely sustained tone. A very satisfying recital of Czech music. Notes are in English only.

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