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

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COMPOSERS: Janacek
LABELS: Philips
ALBUM TITLE: Janáček
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata); String Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters)
PERFORMER: Guarneri Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 456 574-2

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The best performances of Janácek’s quartets are usually formed from a mixture of intense dramatic instinct and unwavering virtuosity. Janácek’s intention in these two extraordinary works was to externalise highly personal narratives: Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata in the First and the composer’s love for a much younger woman in the Second. While illustrative string quartets were not unknown in the Czech tradition (one only needs to think of Smetana), Janácek goes further than any contemporary or predecessor in his programmatic intentions. The Guarneri Quartet certainly has a fiercely dramatic way with these works, but I am not convinced that they look beyond the immediate stimulus for ideas. They also treat phrases with a kind of democratic fairness which means that intensification rarely takes place and there is a pervasive sense of the four-square. This tends to be particularly damaging in the first movements of each string quartet – each episode is lovingly outlined, though without a strong sense of evolution or context. The sound is beautifully clear and the Guarneri’s level of virtuosity is remarkable, but one feels drawn into the drama only occasionally and not consistently throughout a movement, still less across the span of a whole quartet. Though perfectly acceptable as performances, this is an area in which there is strong competition. The Lindsay Quartet on ASV offers an astonishingly compelling interpretation of the internal motivation for these works, but for a near-perfect combination of drama, narrative thread and colour, no one so far beats the PrazŠák Quartet.

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Jan Smaczny