Janacek: String Quartet No. 1 (The Kreutzer Sonata); String Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters)

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COMPOSERS: Janacek
LABELS: Zig-Zag Territoires
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 (The Kreutzer Sonata); String Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters)
PERFORMER: Belcea Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: ZZT 010701
Some 30 years ago, Janácek’s string quartets were rarities in the catalogue. If today, they haven’t quite attained the canonic status of those of Bartók and Shostakovich, Janácek’s quartets are a vital part of the armoury of all serious ensembles. Their particular problems are also their triumph: acute technical difficulties are at the service of some of the most poignantly expressive chamber music of the 20th century. By any standards, the Belcea Quartet’s readings are superb. The players’ sense of ensemble is flawless and their projection of the music’s emotion, aided by excellent recorded sound, demands attention at every stage.

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Perhaps herein lies a slight danger: the emotion is projected in each movement from its very start and thus the almost operatic narrative of these works seems occasionally a little condensed. But some moments of drama are deeply impressive: the sul ponticello writing in the third movement of the First Quartet rips through the texture with compelling venom and the climaxes of each movement are magnificently realised. While I would still place the Škampa Quartet slightly ahead for its command of narrative, it is only by a slender margin.

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Now, thankfully, that the Janácek quartets are firmly part of the repertoire, perhaps groups could make use of the 20-25 minutes left over on the average CD to include some less well-known works from the extensive Czech repertoire: Novák’s entirely marvellous Second String Quartet in D would make a very good starting point. Jan Smaczny