Janacek, Martinu: Janácek: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2; Martinu: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola

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COMPOSERS: Janacek,Martinu
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Janácek: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2; Martinu: Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola
PERFORMER: Emerson Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 477 8093

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As with so much of the music written in Janácek’s last decade, his two remaining string quartets are about his love for a much younger woman, Kamila Stösslová. An unlikely, mostly unreciprocated relationship, it nevertheless helped transform Janácek from a rather marginal figure in Czech music to the leading figure in his nation’s music in the 20th century.

Given the technical and interpretative demands of these works, it is perhaps understandable that even as distinguished an ensemble as the Emerson held off from recording these quartets for 25 years. The wait, informed by huge experience in live performance, has certainly paid off. At every stage, these performances command attention and serve Janácek’s highly personal agenda superbly.

To take one example, their performance of the First Quartet’s second movement is the most compelling I’ve heard, encompassing both raw emotion and an almost detached sense of sophistication. This multi-dimensional approach coupled with a strong sense of the developmental trajectory of each quartet results in performances that go well beyond even the high standards of so many performances available on CD. Quite rightly, the performers recognise the near-operatic quality of much of the writing, reaching an apogee of expressiveness in the finale of the Second Quartet.

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Martinu’s Madrigals for violin and viola, played with a clear understanding of the lineage they bear with Janácek, make an excellent makeweight. By any standards these superbly recorded performances stand as high as the marvellous insightful readings of the Skampa Quartet. Jan Smaczny