ALBUM TITLE: Janácek and Smetana: String Quartets
WORKS: Janácek: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2; Smetana: String Quartet No. 1
PERFORMER: Takács Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67997
The coupling of Smetana’s From my life and Janácek’s two string quartets is so natural I’m surprised it isn’t done more often. Janácek’s First Quartet not only begins obligingly in the key in which Smetana ended, it follows on from the latter’s final elegiac sadness so naturally it makes one wonder if Janácek didn’t have From my life at the back of his mind. That’s one good reason for listening to this disc whole. But there are others. For a moment or two in the Smetana one might think that the Takács Quartet’s almost Olympian objectivity wouldn’t suit music that often seems to well up so directly from the heart. In fact it’s a vindication of Smetana as a large-scale dramatic architect. And that ‘objectivity’ doesn’t prevent From my life becoming surprisingly moving at times.
Perhaps that very lack of expressive contrivance or determination to get the message across ultimately serves to enhance the inner content. It’s very much matter rather than manner. The same is true of the Janácek. The music touches, stirs, excites, but at the same time you’re aware of how strongly each quartet is shaped as a whole – each work is so much more than a chain of poignant or arresting episodes. Perhaps in the end it doesn’t quite ‘hurt’, as Janácek put it – he actually compared one idea in the finale of the Second Quartet to ‘cutting flesh’. But it’s hard not to be impressed, emotionally as well as intellectually, especially when it’s all so clearly and intimately recorded. Stephen Johnson