Sibelius & Smetana String Quartets

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COMPOSERS: Sibelius,Smetana
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Sibelius: String Quartet in D minor (Voces Intimae), Op. 56; Smetana: String Quartets No. 1 (From my Life) & No. 2
PERFORMER: Dante Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: Hyperion CDA 67845

These quartets all come from composers wrestling with personal problems: for Smetana his deafness, and for Sibelius his depression. In Voces Intimae, that’s set up perfectly in the opening question and answer: there’s no grand statement, or positivity here, and that’s reinforced by the obsessive way that Sibelius turns around his limited material, and by the Dante Quartet’s refusal to glamorise the music. Their tone remains lean, and they don’t milk the dynamics. They save the wider tonal and emotional range for the central Adagio, and, by a combination of exactly judged dynamics and pacing, make the music rich yet uncomfortable. In the faster movements, they capture the unsettled, desperate character of the music, and even the final arrival at D minor is appropriately inconclusive.
Smetana’s First Quartet wears its heart more on its sleeve, as its autobiographical subtitle suggests. The Dantes widen their range of tone and rubato to encompass the youthful enthusiasm of the first two movements, the happiness of remembered love in the third, and the idiomatically played folk-inspired music in the last, interrupted by a quiet but terrifying high note signalling the appalling onset of deafness. By the time of the Second Quartet, Smetana’s final madness was almost upon him; the Dantes characterise its rapid mood changes with a cold intensity. This is a splendid issue. Martin Cotton