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

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COMPOSERS: Janacek
LABELS: EMI
ALBUM TITLE: Janáček
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata); String Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters)
PERFORMER: Alban Berg Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 55457 2 DDD

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For such a consummate opera composer, the fact that Janácek also produced two of this century’s most remarkable string quartets might seem a little strange. But Janácek’s quartets are a long way from the abstract credentials normally associated with the medium; drama breaks in at every stage in these highly personal, frequently programmatic works. The first was written in response to Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, while the second is an intimate record of Janácek’s love for a much younger woman. The Alban Berg Quartet’s performance is a distinguished addition to the growing number of recordings of these marvellous works. It was recorded at a concert and has the excitement of a live occasion. The players look beyond the hair-raising technical difficulties and abandon caution for impassioned, at times almost expressionist interpretations which show best in the two finales. Inevitably, there is some rough detail and occasionally cramped pacing. Balance is also a problem with the cello and viola, the latter especially crucial in the second quartet, less forward than they might be. These are stimulating, at times moving performances, but for sheer narrative flair and visceral excitement the Lindsay Quartet on ASV is hard to beat.

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Jan Smaczny