Schumann, Hefti, Janácek: String Quartets

Merel Quartet

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Schumann, Hefti, Janácek: String Quartets Review

by Mike D. Brownell

While there is no clear extra-musical association to be found in the composition of Robert Schumann's String Quartet in A minor (the first of a rapidly written set of three), the Second String Quartet of Leos Janácek is entirely the musical manifestation of his unrequited love affair with Kamila Stösslová. At first glance, these two works have little in common, either in style or background. Tying them together on this Telos Music album is the First String Quartet of David Philip Hefti, entitled Ph(r)asen. The work was commissioned by the Swiss-based Merel Quartet (heard here) and is based on excerpts of letters between Robert and his wife, Clara, and the obsessive letters of Janácek to Stösslová. The text (which unfortunately is not translated in the liner notes) of these letters is performed rhythmically, not vocally, although among the myriad of extended techniques that Hefti incorporates is humming by the four quartet members. Even beyond the intrigue and unique concept that Hefti brings to the table, his writing is also feverishly interesting. One listening is not nearly enough to capture and appreciate all the nuance with which Hefti writes. The Merel Quartet does much honor to Hefti, Janácek, and Schumann with its vibrant, energetic playing. In addition to being technically brilliant (particularly Janácek quartet, which is fiendishly difficult to play in tune), the Merel Quartet does a splendid job of interpreting the three disparate quartets on the program that ties them all together. Telos' sound quality is the only potential downside for the album; despite the crisp articulation that the Merel Quartet is obviously putting forth, Telos' sound is distant and fuzzy. Still, the quality of playing and the originality of the Hefti quartet still make this album entirely worthwhile.

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