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

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Janacek
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi Suite
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata); String Quartet No. 2 (Intimate Letters)
PERFORMER: Melos Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: HMT 7901380 Reissue (1992)

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For all their burning originality, Janácek’s two string quartets owe much to tradition. They are the peak of a development peculiar to the Czechs, beginning with Smetana’s programmatic first string quartet and which grew through a number of highly personal, sometimes experimental quartets by, among others, Dvorák and Novák. With Janácek’s two graphically emotional quartets, the first a personal reaction to Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, and the second a record of his love for a much younger woman, half measures in performance simply will not do. If the performers show any lack of commitment, the intensity of Janácek’s message is fatally diminished. The Melos Quartet gives expressive performances and its recording has an astonishing clarity: the oscillations in the second violin part at the start of the First Quartet have a frightening immediacy. Its attention to phrasing, articulation and the many different tempi within movements is scrupulous. Indeed, as a record of the scores in all their myriad detail these performances are without doubt among the most impressive on record. The players bring real pathos to the slow movements of both quartets, but the Polka passages of the second movement of the First seem comfortable and lacking in poise, and the solos at the start of its finale, don’t really ‘weep’ as Janácek intended. This is a performance to which I will return for the astonishing clarity of detail, but for the perfect balance of care, expression and narrative thread, the Prazák Quartet remains the star recommendation.

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Jan Smaczny