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Hyperion Records

CDA67845 - Smetana & Sibelius: String Quartets
Spring Evening, Ice Break (1897) by Hugo Simberg (1873-1917)
Finnish National Gallery / Central Art Archives / Pirje Mykkänen

Recording details: July 2010
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: May 2011
Total duration: 77 minutes 3 seconds


'The Dante Quartet can scarcely be faulted … each performance is eloquent, intense and emotionally gripping … the D minor Quartet has an entirely appropriate earthiness and the urgency of all the fast movements is compelling' (Gramophone)

'By the time of the Second Quartet, Smetana's final madness was almost upon him; the Dante's characterise its rapid mood changes with a cold intensity. This is a splendid issue' (BBC Music Magazine)

'These performances are superb—the Dante Quartet players really have the ability to bring music alive and sustain the listener through these examples of the quartet repertoire that may still be finding homes. Blessed with first-class sound and excellent annotation, this generous release is a winner' (International Record Review)

'The Dante Quartet has developed into a force to be reckoned with … each player contributes bag-loads of personality, drawing out the chill winds of Sibelius and the earthy rhythms of Smetana's Czech polkas' (Classic FM Magazine)

Smetana & Sibelius: String Quartets
Vivace  [2'37]
Adagio di molto  [10'45]
Allegro  [5'11]
Largo sostenuto  [8'44]
Vivace  [5'57]
Allegro  [4'58]
Allegro moderato  [5'49]
Presto  [2'43]

BBC Music Magazine award winners the Dante Quartet return for their third Hyperion recording with the string quartets of Smetana and Sibelius. This group, renowned for their inventive interpretations and sensitive articulation, capture perfectly the expressive intensity of these masterpieces.

Smetana’s Quartet No 1 in E minor is entitled ‘From my life’ and musically chronicles his youth, loves and vocation, culminating with the onset of his deafness. The turbulent second Quartet in D minor serves as a sequel to the first, continuing Smetana’s life story. The musical language is adventurous and unusual, speaking movingly of the composer’s loss of his hearing.

Interestingly, Smetana and Sibelius, both renowned for their skilful dealing with symphonic forces poignantly turned to the intimacy of the string quartet form at specific points of crisis in their lives. Voces intimae is an intense precursor to Sibelius’s tormented fourth Symphony, written at a time of profound depression.

These works give a unique insight into the private musical lives of their composers and are performed by the Dante Quartet with conviction and flawless technique.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The string quartet has something of a double life. Like the symphony, the genre is adept at presenting and developing abstract musical material. Yet it similarly began to draw on more programmatic elements over the course of the nineteenth century. Given its smaller scale, it proved to be an eloquent mode of communicating specifically private musical thoughts. Both Bedrich Smetana and Jean Sibelius, neither of whom was daunted by the large scale, embraced the form at specific points of crisis in their lives. While Smetana’s late works speak nostalgically after the loss of his hearing, Voces intimae is an intense precursor to Sibelius’s tormented fourth symphony, written at a time of profound depression. Collectively these works give a rare insight into the private music of outwardly nationalist composers.

By the end of his career, Smetana was considered the founding father of Czech musical nationalism. Even Smetana himself presented such a façade when he wrote to his German publisher that ‘according to my merits and according to my efforts I am a Czech composer and the creator of the Czech style in the branches of dramatic and symphonic music’. Yet his relationship with the Czech National Revival had not always been so strong. At the beginning of his career, Smetana had deep ties with fellow musicians over the border in Leipzig, and with Liszt (who was an early advocate). A self-taught man, Smetana found it an uphill struggle to gain recognition in Prague, despite initial attempts to find favour with his Ceské tance (‘Czech Dances’). Leaving the Bohemian capital, Smetana went in search of glory elsewhere, namely Gothenburg. Sweden’s ready finances provided steady employment, but the country’s second city was markedly provincial in comparison to Prague. Smetana flourished, though the promise of employment back in Prague at the new Royal Provincial Czech Theatre prompted fresh patriotic sentiment.

Although Smetana had hoped for a prodigal son’s welcome home, he still had to fight for recognition. He saw that true respect from his peers would only come through fully embracing the culture and language of the Czech National Revival. Like the majority of citizens (bar remote agricultural workers), Smetana had been educated in German under Austrian rule, so he quickly had to learn Czech and soon did everything in his power to project overt national feelings. By 1866 the assimilation had worked and he was made Musical Director of the (Czech language) Provisional Theatre. Melding the Wagnerian principles he held so dear with innate national pride, he created a new brand of Czech opera. Hailed by the young adherents of the Revival, his most successful early opera The Bartered Bride was to be its comic calling card, while his grand, quasi-Wagnerian opera Dalibor was chosen to commemorate the founding stone of the National Theatre (which eventually opened in 1881 with the premiere of Smetana’s Libuše). While he was at his most celebrated, however, deafness struck in 1874. Moving almost immediately away from the city, the consequent absence of his theatrical commitments permitted Smetana a final decade of creativity, though not without its costs.

While completing Má vlast, his public statement on a now deep-seated nationalism, Smetana embarked on a pair of string quartets. The mirror image of the orchestral poems’ extrovert sentiment, Z mého zivota (‘From my life’) is a markedly private work, ‘purposely written for four instruments which, as in a small circle of friends, talk among themselves about what has oppressed me so significantly’. But given that the composer Ludevít Procházka’s Prague-based Czech-German Chamber Music Society prompted Smetana to write the quartet, Smetana knew from the outset that private thoughts would soon enter the public sphere. Writing to his friend, the musicologist Josef Srb-Debrnov, he detailed what he hoped to achieve:

My intention was to paint a tone picture of my life. The first movement depicts my youthful leanings towards art, a Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my future misfortune. The long persistent note in the finale owes its origin to this. It is the fateful ringing of the high-pitched tones in my ears, which, in 1874, announced the beginning of my deafness. I allow myself this small joke, though [my loss of hearing] was ultimately disastrous.
The second movement, a quasi-polka, recalls the joyful days of my youth when I composed dance tunes and was widely known as a passionate lover of dancing.
The third movement (the one which, in the opinion of the gentlemen who play this quartet, is unperformable) reminds me of the happiness of my first love, the girl who later became my first wife [and whom Smetana sadly lost to tuberculosis, caught in the harsh Gothenburg climate].
The fourth movement describes my discovery that I could incorporate national elements in my music, and my joy in following this path until it was terminated by the onset of my deafness, the outlook into a sad future, the tiny rays of hope of recovery; but remembering the promise of my early career, a feeling of painful regret.

There can be no doubt about the sincerity of Smetana’s feelings. Having wished for wider recognition and eventually realizing that his reputation would come through the Czech National Revival, Smetana had become its most vocal devotee. Lauded as the father of Czech music, his deafness cruelly consigned him to an increasingly hermitic existence. The sudden interruption of the quartet’s vivacious finale is an eloquent depiction of creativity cut down. The melancholic (if consoled) lullaby that follows, with its whispers of past glories, tells of his painful acquiescence.

In Smetana’s second string quartet, composed deeper into his deafness (in 1882–3), consolation turns to consternation. Portending the passionate aggression of Janácek’s later quartets, the opening Allegro vacillates between belligerent outbursts and resignation. A richer harmonic palette, often spiralling away from the music’s tonal moorings, compounds the agitation of the opening movement. Avoiding the innate calm of a slow movement, Smetana continues with a choppy dance. Although it has the pretense of ease and calm, the wide leaps, disrupted rhythms and ‘misplaced’ accents lend an oddly modernist touch. A more soothing melody, first on the viola and then given voice by the whole quartet, has a disarming effect, though it too is not as settled as it first appears. Even the final cadence, resting on top of a secure cello line, feels oddly ill at ease. The third movement is yet more unsettled. A plangent imitative theme grows up from the cello, though it is disrupted by wild tremolandos. With the lilt of a folk dance, Smetana desperately tries to project some sense of classical propriety in the finale. Yet an ever more torrid language undoes its formal modesty. Quite unlike the acceptance of the first quartet, Smetana’s final chamber work indicates a frustrated soul, and one who sadly ended his days in Prague’s Lunatic Asylum.

Like the voices that Smetana was consigned to hear only in his head toward the end of his life, Sibelius felt similarly isolated in his thoughts. Living in an unforgiving landscape, his rural home outside Helsinki became a self-perpetuating exile. The harsh forest at Järvenpää on the banks of Lake Tuusula provided the setting for his home, which he named ‘Ainola’ (after his wife Aino). They moved there in 1903 to save Sibelius from the alcoholic temptations of Helsinki. Quite apart from Smetana’s celebrity turned solitarian, Sibelius’s isolation was symptomatic of his increasingly bleak world view. Although early works embrace the fervour of Finnish nationalism—albeit echoing Tchaikovsky’s vivacious language and the Austro-German tradition to which he aspired—the seclusion at Ainola and his ongoing alcoholism took their toll. Yet personal shelter was, to some extent, counteracted by public affirmation, with new links made in England and Germany and with Richard Strauss and Mahler. Sibelius grew in confidence and his third symphony marked the apex of a period of self-assurance. Revealing himself as a true depressive, however, the highs immediately precipitated a downward alcoholic spiral. Debt and illness pervaded the Sibelius household and although the 1908 Night Ride and Sunrise ends with a numinous depiction of dawn, the string quartet Voces intimae and the fourth symphony that followed mark a total negation of that open-hearted image.

These two works can be seen as private and public demonstrations of Sibelius’s depressive disposition. They likewise mark a shift in his musical language, echoing his friend Mahler’s own change in his final symphonies from unbridled (if equivocal) joy toward passive submission. A plangent theme in the first violin (answered by the cello) provides the material for the free opening movement. Like Smetana’s second quartet, Sibelius’s work (also in D minor) is concise, breathless and conversational. Sharper, accented motifs jar against long-spun phrases, while the movement’s final thick double-stopped chords (with bare fifths and octaves) make for a profoundly disquieting conclusion. The scurrying and brief scherzo that follows (Vivace) is no less disconcerting—albeit couched in major keys—as confidential undertones (often harmonically at odds with each other) are thrown from instrument to instrument. The emotional core of the work is in its central Adagio di molto (by far the most extended movement). Rhythmically it is deliberately unsteady and littered with rubato. This earnest outpouring indicates something of the crossroads that Sibelius was facing in his career. Themes sound as if in isolation, grappling to find security in the confluence of their voices. Rare moments of union are tender but brief.

After the balm of the Adagio’s F major conclusion, the triple-time Allegretto (ma pesante) that follows (returning us to the tonic) seems all the more brusque. Yet like the Adagio, there is a lack of inner direction, emphasized by the free harmony and a twisting accompaniment. While classical dance forms inform the movement, Sibelius’s language pushes down altogether more rhapsodic avenues. The underlying disquiet of the preceding movements comes to the fore in the tense whispers of the finale. Clinging to the ruins of the tonic in the final bars, the quartet as a whole is deeply ambivalent. Looking forward as well as back, the work eloquently depicts a point of mental crisis. With Voces intimae Sibelius left behind his Romantic past and embraced the dark, modernist future that Smetana had predicted in his own earlier D minor quartet.

Gavin Plumley © 2011

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