Prazák Quartet / Zemlinsky Quartet

Martinu: String Quartets

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As Bohuslav Martinu's oeuvre is increasingly performed and recorded, it becomes more apparent that he was one of the most fascinating figures of 20th century music and that his music has gone unknown too long in the west. The Prázak Quartet's 2009 recordings of the String Quartet No. 6 and the String Quartet No. 3 are combined here with the Zemlinsky Quartet's 2008 performance of the String Quartet No. 1, and this disc covers less than half of Martinu's output for string quartet. Even though the reverse numerical ordering runs counter to expectations, it has the benefit of presenting the most mature and interesting music up front and the rather naïve youthful work last. The String Quartet No. 6 is an admirable achievement for its dynamic rhythms and intense contrapuntal activity, yet it also abounds with high spirits that make it lively and entertaining, in contrast to much modern quartet music that emphasizes somber and contemplative moods. Martinu's vivacious repartée between instruments also keeps the music interesting and stays true to Haydn's model of classical quartet writing, which always emphasized the interplay of parts. The String Quartet No. 3 is wilder in tone and rather akin to the folk-based quartets of Martinu's contemporaries Bartók and Kodály. Its asymmetrical rhythms and pungent harmonies make it a bracing work, and of the three pieces presented on this album, it is by far the most challenging. The same cannot be said for the String Quartet No. 1, which is a charmingly tuneful work that is agreeable in many passages, but quite wearing due to its duration of close to 40 minutes. This is an example of the youthful Martinu overreaching to find a solid stylistic direction to pursue, but from an excess of enthusiasm, he went too far with the form. Because these quartets represent Martinu in three distinct stages of his development, they may best be studied separately; certainly, the performers should have their due and be heard and appreciated independently. Praga's sound is clear and vibrant.

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