Smetana: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Smetana
LABELS: Praga
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2
PERFORMER: Prazák Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: PRD 250 128
Smetana had little time for the abstract musical statement; nearly everything he wrote has some form of programmatic background, most famously in the operas and the symphonic poems of Má vlast. In many ways he was the perfect realisation of Liszt’s neo-romantic ideal, though mostly Smetana was more genuinely symphonic when telling a story in music. The two programmatic string quartets are his most personal works. The first was prompted by the rapid, and, for a professional musician, catastrophic onset of total deafness; it tells of his life, loves, triumphs and of fate’s cruel blow presented graphically and dramatically with a high E, the note that plagued him in his vicissitude. The second quartet, a powerful image of Smetana’s tortured later years, is more concentrated and demanding for players and listeners.

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The Prazák quartet have given us remarkable perforamances of Janácek’s two, also autobiographical, quartets. Their work here is somewhat more mixed. Their performance of the second quartet is to my mind the best on record. Heart-breakingly intense and with exemplary attention to the detail of the score (qualities shared by the makeweight, a marvellous rendition of My Home), as a study of a composer trying to fend off delirium and encroaching madness it could hardly be bettered. Their way with the first quartet is slightly eccentric, less careful and at times slightly, puzzlingly for such distinguished players, a touch routine; though certainly no disgrace, it gets nowhere near the dramatic intensity of the Lindsay Quartet’s landmark performance. Jan Smaczny