Janácek & Smetana: String Quartets

Takács String Quartet

(CD - Hyperion #CDA 67997)

Review by James Manheim

The combination of Smetana, the broad definer of Czech nationalism, and Janácek, the inward, intensely psychologically oriented master of the Czech interwar period, might seem an odd one, leapfrogging the crucial Czech chamber music figure of Dvorák. The program here, however, makes a great deal of sense, for Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life") is an autobiographical work that closely represents the composer's thought processes about, among other things, his encroaching deafness. For sheer all-but-words intensity in this work, also consider the recording of the two Smetana quartets by the Pavel Haas Quartet on Supraphon. But taken as a whole, the works on this release form a compelling narrative of their own, one that counterbalances the easy equation of Czech music and nationalism. Both the Janácek works are inwardly programmatic in nature as well, and the language of all three quartets brings together what are called in the Janácek String Quartet No. 2 "intimate voices" with the wider stylistic developments of the time. The String Quartet No. 1 of Janácek is rooted in the short Leo Tolstoy novel The Kreutzer Sonata, a tale of sexual jealousy and spiritual awakening that itself refers to the Beethoven violin sonatas of the same title. All three quartets are dense pieces, with emotional gestures woven into a thick polyphonic fabric, and they require iron rhythmic control. This kind of thing is the Takács Quartet's bread and butter, and this a major statement in the repertory of Czech chamber music

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