Martinu: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; Three Horsemen

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COMPOSERS: Martinu
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; Three Horsemen
PERFORMER: Martinu Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 8.553782
Listening to the opening of Martinu’s First String Quartet is a dislocating experience – we could be in the presence of several composers: Debussy, Ravel, possibly even Vaughan Williams. There is, however, very little in the musical tone that suggests the future Martinu, though his concentration on a number of small rhythmic features is one pointer to the future. Martinu wrote the Quartet in 1918 at the height of his enthusiasm for modern French music and, for all its derivative qualities, it is an engaging work, full of confidence if a little too expansive. The Martinu Quartet’s performance has a great sense of advocacy and insight, particularly in the slow movement and finale; it loses out slightly to the Panocha Quartet in being a little too literal in the more repetitive material, but overall its performance transcends that of its (very few) competitors in commitment and pacing.

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In the formative Second String Quartet, written in Paris under the influence of Roussel, Debussy is still a presence, notably in the introduction to the first movement, but Impressionism rapidly yields to a more dissonant, modernist accent, felt most strongly in the dark slow movement. To an even greater extent than in the first quartet, the Martinu Quartet gets inside the music with a conviction borne of intimate knowledge – a near definitive performance. It also adds a true rarity: the first recording, I believe, of Martinu’s first composition, the Three Horsemen from c1900 – a curiosity, but one which offers abundant evidence of an unfettered imagination. Jan Smaczny