In Smetana’s second string quartet, composed deep 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.
from notes by Gavin Plumley © 2011