Terje Tønnesen conducts Janácek’s String Quartets Nos 1 & 2

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WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2; plus Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata dramatised (English & Norwegian)
PERFORMER: Teodor Janson (actor); Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Terje Tønnesen


Nervous systems go haywire when confronted with committed performances of Janácek’s two quartets. Imagine the impact, then, when both are carefully and selectively arranged for string orchestra, as they have been here by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra’s inspirational artistic director Terje Tønnesen, and when the first can also be heard broken up with harrowing readings from the Tolstoy novella which inspired it, The Kreutzer Sonata.

That so much scours the soul here is due partly to the shared vision of these remarkable players and partly, on the second disc here – to distinguished Norwegian actor Teodor Janson’s amazingly idiomatic English for the Tolstoy (if your Norwegian is up to it, try disc three). Hybrids like this can spell danger, but Tønnesen makes sure the music rules in the careful placing of the four movements, adding the opening of the eponymous Beethoven violin sonata, later a bit of the slow movement, and a few atmospheric soundscapes within the narration (he has composed scores for the theatre, too). The novella is hardly the ‘little psychological thriller’ or ‘slight reaction to Beethoven’s violin sonata’ the liner note suggests; it’s a devastating study of an unhappy marriage – based on Tolstoy’s jealousy of his wife’s innocent friendship with the composer Taneyev – up there with Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman. The arrangements themselves embrace judicious solos with ensembles that are hair-raising in the stabbing sul ponticellos (close-to-the-bridge sequences) and barely audible in astonishing pianissimos. If you already have the quartet versions and love the music, add this beautifully-presented release to your collection.

David Nice


Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.