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)
Colin Currie (percussion)
Escher String Quartet
rec. 2022, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, UK
Reviewed in stereo
BIS BIS-2670 SACD [76]

Janáček’s Second String Quartet Intimate Letters was his final large-scale work. He completed it in 22 days, yet he also found time to write copious letters, sometimes more than one in the same day, and always to the same person. He met Kamila Stösslová, a married woman some 40 years his junior, when he was 63. His entirely platonic love for her endured for the rest of his life. It is at the origin of many of his greatest works, and his operatic heroines. He frequently referred to the quartet as ‘ours’, and discretion prompted the modification of its original title Love Letters. He also later abandoned the requirement that the viola part be played on the viola d’amore, a baroque instrument significantly different from a modern viola. Whilst a particularly ravishing passage in the middle of the third movement was, according to Janáček, a portrait of Kamila, it is more helpful to think of the work as a passionate expression of the composer’s deepest feelings for her. It is thus a portrait of its creator rather than of she who was the inspiration.

The long and detailed editorial introductions to scores of Janáček’s quartets might lead one to think that the musical text will be authentic and definitive. Nothing, as it turns out, is further from the truth. In the case of the second quartet, Janáček produced his autograph manuscript score only a few months before he died. Though he supervised a number of rehearsals, the work was only premiered after his death by the Moravian Quartet. The task of creating this highly complex work led to a significant number of modifications. How many of these were made in collaboration with, and authorised by, the composer is impossible to say. The fact that my Bärenreiter score was prepared from four different sources indicates that we can only hope that what is on the page comes at least close to the composer’s final intentions.

Listening to the work whilst following the score is something of a challenge, given its rhythmic complexities, astonishingly quixotic changes of mood, and the fact that fragments of melodic lines are constantly passed from one instrument to another. The ear follows the music but the eye lags behind. There are many discrepancies between my score and what the Escher Quartet plays here. Most noticeable, perhaps, are the two vicious tremolandi in the final movement, present in most performances including these, but quite absent from my score. But there are many other variants, some small, some not so small.

Janáček frequently expresses his passion for Kamila in music that is harsh and even violent. Czech performances, especially older ones such as by Janáček Quartet on Supraphon (1963), tend to emphasise this. The Escher Quartet does not shy away from this aspect of the music: the sul ponticello effects in the opening passage, for instance, have the players playing so close to the bridge that the notes are not always easy to discern. Yet when this opening passage is over and sunlight is revealed, the players treat us to extreme beauty and richness of tone and colour. This performance, without yielding anything of the music’s wildness, will please those listeners who find Janáček’s lyrical side sometimes undervalued. The Talich Quartet on Calliope (1985) are old and trusted friends, but this performance will also be one I will turn to in the future when I want to read Janáček’s intimate letters.

Janáček’s First Quartet was also created in a bewildering whirlwind of inspiration of a little over a week. Its title refers not to Beethoven’s sonata, but to Tolstoy’s novella of the same title, a tale of love, jealousy and murder that spoke directly to Janáček’s immense sympathy with, and understanding of, women. My Philharmonia score is no more definitive than that of the Second Quartet, and for the same reasons. (It would seem that the composer made many suggestions during these rehearsals which he neglected to write down.) That said, following this superb performance by the Escher Quartet with the score reveals fewer and less intrusive discrepancies; fewer differences, too, from what one is used to in other performances.

The Russian-sounding theme that immediately follows the opening motto shoots away at a startlingly fast tempo, though it is very close indeed to the composer’s indicated crotchet=224. Clearly, any group that takes on Janáček’s quartets must first find its own ‘performing edition’. One of the many virtues of this particular performance is the extreme clarity the players bring to Janáček’s highly complex textures. Tiny fragments of the theme are tossed from one instrument to another, and are surrounded by ostinato figures that in many performances might get in the way. Here, though, all is clarity: the tremolando writing in the second movement is so precise as to sound like a single wind player employing flutter-tonguing. They do not neglect the music’s more violent outbursts, nor do they underplay the passages where the composer seems to asking for harsh sounds, yet their performance, once again, is notable for its insistence on tonal beauty.

As for the work’s essence, its dramatic drive and meaning, I do not think I have ever heard it better realised than here. The closing minute, one of the most compelling examples of string quartet writing to be found anywhere, is perfectly handled. The composer has taken the motto from the opening of the work and transformed it into something which the word ‘passionate’ cannot sufficiently describe. (It is marked to be played with ‘ferocity’.) The Escher Quartet builds inexorably to these final gestures. We have no choice but to follow. The close is both exhilarating and deeply moving.

It was an excellent idea to couple the Janáček works with another quartet by a Moravian composer, who was also a pupil of Janáček. Pavel Haas was transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941, where he encountered, amongst many musicians, the conductor Karel Ančerl. Both were later transferred to Auschwitz, where Haas was executed. His second string quartet is a fine work indeed. Michael Beckerman’s excellent booklet note tells us that the work was written before Haas studied with Janáček, but the unwary listener might well, at certain points, think they were listening to music by Janáček himself. The first movement, in particular, is dominated by tiny ostinato figures, sometimes within the melodic line and more often in the accompaniment, very much in the Janáček manner. The mercurial changes of mood and texture are characteristic of the older master too. The overall sound, however, is more euphonious and less challenging.

Haas’s quartet, entitled From the Monkey Mountains, is reminiscent of a visit the composer made to a region of the Moravia that bears that name. Each movement carries a title, but the composer warned against a too programmatic interpretation of the work. Even so, the second movement, ‘Cart, Driver and Horse’ is as accomplished a musical portrait of a ‘short ride in a fast machine’ as you are likely to encounter. The finale, too, lives up to its title ‘A Wild Night’. The optional percussion part is, to say the least, unusual, but the idea works brilliantly. Then, just as the music – and the night in question – is at its wildest, it suddenly stops and is transformed, without percussion, into a touching and nostalgic Moravian folk song. The rowdiness returns, however, to bring the work to a striking close.

The percussion part is brilliantly executed by Colin Currie, who also took the role on an earlier recording with the Pavel Haas Quartet for Supraphon. I have not heard that performance, but it is difficult to imagine that it can be any finer than this one. With the recording that is well up to the BIS standard, this is a deeply satisfying coupling of three Moravian string quartet masterpieces.

William Hedley

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Previous review: Leslie Wright (August 2023)