Three of the great Czech string quartets are featured on Janáček & Smetana String Quartets, the latest CD from the Takács Quartet. All three works, while being strongly nationalistic, are also intensely personal.
Smetana openly admitted that his Quartet No 1 in E Minor, From My Life, was a tone picture of his life: the first movement is his youthful yearnings; the second the dance music of his youth; the third his first love—his future wife, whom he would lose to tuberculosis; and the fourth his joy in incorporating nationalism in his mature music, a joy that would be terminated by his growing deafness, represented in the score by the sudden ominous high E harmonic pitch that sounded in the composer’s ear. It’s obvious from the passionate opening that this will be a rewarding performance, and it never disappoints.
Janáček’s two quartets, subtitled The Kreutzer Sonata and Intimate Letters, were both written late in his life, when he had found his decidedly individual voice and was experiencing a late surge in his career. In particular, he was deeply involved in an intensely passionate—though essentially unrequited—friendship with the young Kamila Stősslová, and the second quartet specifically represents events in Janáček’s relationship with her; despite his age, it’s full of the passion and yearning of a youthful man.
The performances of both works here are all that you could want them to be.