Janáček and Haas String Quartets BIS

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
String Quartet No. 1 ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ (1923)
String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’ (1928)
Pavel Haas (1899-1944)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 7 ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ (1925)
Escher String Quartet
Colin Currie (percussion) (Haas)
rec. 2022, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, UK
BIS BIS-2670 SACD [76]

Janáček’s two string quartets once upon a time were largely the province of Czech ensembles.  Today any string quartet worth its salt will have performed them and many have made recordings, some more successful than others.  Enter the Escher String Quartet, the latest to contribute their effort to this repertoire.  I have always expressed a preference for the native groups, finding their interpretations not only technically impeccable, but also displaying a second nature that has eluded some of the more illustrious of non-Czech ensembles.   I did find good things to say about both the Emerson (DG – review) and Doric (Chandos – review) quartet recordings, but neither attained the achievements of such Czech ensembles, as the Janáček, Talich, and Škampa quartets (all Supraphon).  The tables are somewhat turned with these accounts by the Escher Quartet.  For one thing they are blessed with the best sound of all the recordings of these works I know.  It is quite amazing, as they could be playing right in front of the listener with the rosin flying off their bows, thanks to BIS’s SACD sound.  Technically, they also leave little to be desired and interpretatively they really capture the essence of the music.  However, I have one or two quibbles with their playing of Janáček’s effects.  In the first movement of Quartet No. 1, right after the beginning, they exaggerate the high, screechy string part at a swift tempo that does not wholly relate to what has gone before.  They do the same thing when this passage returns later in the movement.  Some of the other quartets, even the Czech ones, also do this but not to such a noticeable degree.  It unduly calls attention to the quartet’s playing rather than Janáček’s music.  This is the only place that bothered me in their otherwise eloquent account of this work.  They display a warmth throughout these performances that is hard to resist.  If I still maintain a preference for the Škampa and Talich, I likewise have great admiration for the Escher.

Their performance of the Quartet No. 2 is on the same level.  The single problem I have is also near the beginning of the first movement, where the sul ponticello passage is overdone and calls attention to itself in its creepiness.  It is meant to be mysterious, but at the same time a natural part of what precedes it.  Other than that, all is smooth sailing for the remainder of the performance.  In fact they have chosen for me what is the ideal tempo for the Allegro finale.  I think it should be like a folk dance and not rushed, so that one can appreciate the wonderful rhythm.  There is a huge variation by performers in the choice of tempo in the first subject of this movement.  Most of the Czech ensembles take it too fast.  Even my favourite Škampa are way too speedy here though not as ridiculously so as the older Smetana Quartet (Supraphon live).  My first exposure to these works was on LP with the eponymous Janáček Quartet, who recorded it for Supraphon back in the 1960s.  I always liked the tempo they took for the last movement, which was much slower than the more recent Czech groups’ tempos.  The Escher, however, follow suit with the Janáček and find the perfect tempo for this movement, only slightly quicker than the Janáček Quartet’s.  They really bring out the character of this music better than any other group I have heard.  For this alone I find this SACD indispensable, but there are other reasons one should consider owning it.

Not least of these is the inclusion of Pavel Haas’s Second String Quartet, a substantial bonus of over a half-hour of delectable quartet music that deserves greater exposure than it has heretofore received.  The appropriately named Pavel Haas String Quartet recorded the work for Supraphon that Jonathan Woolf welcomed (review).  To my knowledge it has received only one recording since, also on Supraphon by the Bennewitz Quartet (review).  While I could only sample those, I cannot imagine them being superior to the Escher here.

The work betrays some influence of Janáček, who was Haas’s teacher, but Haas clearly has his own voice.  He gives the four movements programmatic titles:  I – Landscape; II – Cart, Driver and Horse; III – The Moon and I; IV – A Wild Night. “From the Monkey Mountains,” the overall subtitle of the quartet refers to the Moravian Highlands as the “Monkey Mountains,” in the local Brno dialect, according to Michael Beckerman in his excellent accompanying notes.  The descriptive elements of the movement titles do not refer to paintings, but were “simply intended to capture several strong impressions evoked, by a light-hearted summer vacation in the country,” as Haas is quoted, cited by Beckerman.  One can appreciate the music without any knowledge of these titles, but they help in understanding what influenced the composition.

The first movement, marked Andante, contains some Janáček-like rhythmic patterns, but the harmony can be Ravel-tinged.  At other times it is more harmonically advanced and a songful middle section has a distinctly Eastern flavour.  The second movement is also an Andante, but with its lurching dissonant chords does evoke a carriage ride, as Beckerman notes.  The third movement, designated Largo e misterioso is rather sad with wistfulness and mystery, and a real contrast to the earlier movements.  It reminded me a bit of Korngold.  Then the Vivace e con fuoco finale takes off with high strings in tremolo followed by pizzicato in a folkish section before the percussion enters and the music becomes jazzy.  There is a sudden break around the 5:00 mark, followed by a beautiful, yearning string melody without percussion which Beckerman describes as “a simple slow song in Moravian folk style” that quotes a piece Haas earlier composed in a Janáček masterclass.  The “wild night” returns with the percussion like some heavy, noisy dance, and the work concludes decisively on a loud chord.  A most impressive piece that invites repeated listening.

The Escher String Quartet are fully in their element both here and in the Janáček.  These superb musicians receive all the support they require from BIS’s engineers who have provided their usual state-of-the-art recording.  Even with my few caveats, this SACD is worth adding to one’s collection.  There are so many choices for the Janáček quartets that everyone will have their own favourites.  For some it will depend on the couplings, while for others it won’t matter that much if they get only the two Janáček works.  Here BIS has been very generous in including a disc mate that will be new to many, as it was to me, and one which is a very good fit for the others here.

Leslie Wright

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Adam Barnett-Hart (violin); Brendan Speltz (violin); Pierre Lapointe (viola); Brook Speltz (cello)