LABELS: Arte Nova
WORKS: String Quartet No. 1 (From My Life)
PERFORMER: Alexander String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 34036 2
Smetana’s First String Quartet stands close to the beginning of a grand experimental tradition in Czech chamber music. Wholly autobiographical, it shows us the private side of the composer which rarely surfaces in his large-scale national statements made in opera or for orchestra. In many ways, Smetana’s thoroughly programmatic view of the quartet, of all the forms of the 19th century the one to maintain its abstract credentials, set the scene for Janácek’s two highly narrative string quartets. The First, based on Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, is a penetrating gloss on a tragic tale which stretches the imagination and technique of any string quartet.
In both works, the Alexander Quartet has a clear notion of the expressive aims of each composer. With Smetana it is at its finest in a passionate rendition of the slow movement – a memory of youthful love; elsewhere, their search for the dramatic at times leads to a ‘larger than life’ approach which threatens Smetana’s carefully worked-out line, especially in the finale. They also respond readily to Janácek’s storytelling, most convincingly in the first two movements, but ultimately uncover less than a number of readily available, highly perceptive performances. Jan Smaczny