Stephen Greenbank
MusicWeb International
November 2015

Regarded as the father of Czech music, Smetana composed only four substantial chamber works. This first quartet dates from 1876. Two years earlier he had turned fifty and was suffering from encroaching deafness which forced his early retirement. He relocated to a village in north Bohemia where he became dependent on his daughter and her husband, spending the remainder of his life composing. He titled the E minor quartet From My Life. It is an autobiographical portrait charting the progress of his life from the joys of youth, love and art, to the final movement which speaks of his growing awareness of the deafness which was to shroud his life. By 1884 this had resulted in a complete mental collapse and he ended his days in an institution.

The Takács Quartet make an impact from the start with an arresting declamatory chord followed by the viola’s ‘call of fate’ passage. After this initial dramatic opening, a calmer lyrical section portraying the composer’s romantic attitudes toward life, music, and love is ardently depicted in the warm expressiveness of the quartet’s eloquent playing. I love the way they contrast the passionate with burning lyricism. The second movement, Allegro moderato à la polka, is joyous and recalls happy memories in its lilting dance rhythms. The melancholy and sadness of the Largo is ushered in by the rich, sonorous cello sound of András Fejér. There’s a real dark and sombre feel to the music, where the composer recalls to mind Kateřina Kolářová, his first wife, who died prematurely of tuberculosis in 1859, the tenth year of their marriage. In the finale, there is verve, energy and vigour, and the mood is upbeat and celebratory. In the coda a high-pitched E is sounded over an agitated accompaniment, here Smetana depicting, in musical terms, the ringing in his ears that marked his impending deafness.

I enjoyed the Takács’ performance every bit as much as the benchmark recordings of the eponymous Smetana Quartet, who set down four traversals of these works throughout their career. I’m particularly fond of their Supraphon 1985 studio version (C37S-7339) and the BBC Legends live 1965 RFH performance (BBCL 4137-2). This new recording can confidently stand shoulder to shoulder with them.

The last decade of Janáček’s life saw a sudden outpouring of creativity. In 1917 he met Kamila Stösslová, the wife of an antique dealer, thirty-eight years his junior—she was twenty-five at the time. Despite Janáček’s hot pursuit—he was married to Zdenka Schultzova—the affair was to remain unconsummated. He wrote over seven hundred letters to her. She became his muse and was the inspiration for three of his finest operas: Kátya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Affair. His passion for Kamila also inspired him to compose the Glagolitic Mass, the Sinfonietta and the two String Quartets.

Russia and its culture aroused Janáček’s interest, and this passion is reflected in his later works. Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata was a particular favourite and an inspiration for an unfinished piano trio (1908). In 1923, he composed a String Quartet carrying the title The Kreutzer Sonata utilizing material from the trio. The Quartet was completed in just a week, and was premiered in October 1924 in Prague by the Czech Quartet. In it the composer drew parallels between his own situation with Kamila and the Tolstoy novella.

The sordid undercurrents of Tolstoy’s story of adultery and murder are graphically portrayed in the Takács’ reading. What attracts me to the performance is their grasp of the alternation of introspection and the more unreserved demonstrative qualities. They seem to live and breathe the drama throughout. In the second movement, for instance, there’s a ruggedness, where the craggy lines are etched and viscerally sculpted. By contrast, the finale is dour and elegiac. A more energetic and ferocious episode interrupts but the movement ends as it began with the Takács’ dynamic control second-to-none.

The String Quartet No 2 of 1928 carries the title Intimate Letters. Again Janáček drew inspiration from his intense friendship with Kamila Stösslová. The work reflects the character of their relationship, as demonstrated in their correspondence. It was premiered by the Moravian Quartet on 11 September 1928, a month before the composer died.

There’s an intimacy and sensitivity running throughout the Takács’ Intimate letters, which casts a spell over the listener. They certainly don’t hold anything back in this intensely raw reading, with the composer’s frustration and yearning informing the narrative. In 1917 Janáček first set eyes on Kamila, and the Adagio relates 'the summer events at Luhacovice Spa in Moravia', during that fateful time. The sadness and despair of their months of separation are vividly conveyed. The rhythmic buoyancy of the rustic-style dance of the finale is expertly contrasted with the more passionate episodes that intervene.

This latest Janáček traversal provides a worthy alternative to my favourite versions by the Tokyo Quartet on RCA (09026 68286), and the Hagen Quartet on DG (4276692).

Last year I reviewed the Takács’ impressive release of the two Brahms String Quintets with Lawrence Power on Hyperion CDA67900. Once again they have proved themselves a class act, with technically polished performances, profound musicality and fresh insights. The Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate is a venue that always seems to work in the music’s favour, providing warmth, spaciousness and intimacy where required.