Janáček - New Zealand String Quartet. © 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd

CD Spotlight

A Love Story in Two Quartets

GIUSEPPE PENNISI listens to music by Janáček, played by the New Zealand String Quartet

'... an excellent reading ...'


New Zealand is relatively Covid-free because it has adopted a very tight policy of closing its borders, as reported in all the main newspapers in Europe and in the US. A Pacific island country of about five million citizens has been able to handle the situation quite well. There is less information about the lively musical life in what used to be called The Antipodes. A year ago, I reviewed a good CD from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. (Read 'Strauss from the Antipodes', 18 January 2021.) Now I have at hand a CD of the New Zealand String Quartet – an ensemble created in 1987 - with chamber music by Janáček. The CD includes his two string quartets and his two very short sonnets.

String Quartet No 1, Kreutzer Sonata, was written in a very short space of time, between 13 and 28 October 1923, at a time of great creative concentration. The composer revised the autograph from 30 October to 7 November 1923. This was a period of his inspirational and unrequited passion for Kamila Stösslová, a married woman thirty eight years his junior. Officially, the composition was inspired by Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata. (The novella was in turn inspired by Beethoven's Violin Sonata No 9, known as the 'Kreutzer Sonata' from the name of its dedicatee, Rodolphe Kreutzer.) The novel dealt with adultery. It's hard to say whether Kamila Stösslová or Tolstoy's book were more relevant in inspiring the quartet which had its debut on 17 October 1924 at a concert of the Spolek pro moderní hudbu (Contemporary Music Society) at the Mozarteum in Prague. 'I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata', Janáček confided in one of his letters to Kamila Stösslová. The music of the quartet depicts psychological drama containing moments of conflict as well as emotional outbursts, passionate work, a rush towards catharsis and a final climax.

Listen — Janáček: Con moto - Vivo - Andante (String Quartet No 1)
(track 3, 0:00-0:38) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

Using a principle of thematic montage, the quartet almost abandons the fields of traditional harmony, homophony and counterpoint. Instead, it makes free with the varied sonic factors typical of Janáček, including his characteristic modal inflections. The quartet is in four movements. The passionate love is rendered very well in movement No 3 and in the finale. The New Zealand String Quartet provides an excellent reading of the outburst of passion followed by a mood of resignation.

Listen — Janáček: Finale (String Quartet No 1)
(track 4, 4:17-5:11) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

String Quartet No 2, 'Intimate Letters', was written in 1928. It has been referred to as Janáček's 'manifesto on love'. Unusually for a classical work, the nickname 'Intimate Letters' (Listy důvěrné in Czech) was given by the composer, as it, too, was inspired by his long and spiritual affair with Kamila Stösslová. The composition was intended to reflect the character of their relationship as revealed in the more than seven hundred letters they exchanged with each other:

You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving. The fragrance of your body, the glow of your kisses – no, really of mine. Those notes of mine kiss all of you. They call for you passionately ...

The work's debut took place on 11 September 1928, a month after Janáček died, performed by the Moravian Quartet.

On a larger scale than the Quartet No 1, Quartet No 2 is made of four freely evolving movements, in an overall design of tight yet elusive unity.

Listen — Janáček: Adagio (String Quartet No 2)
(track 6, 0:00-0:49) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

The New Zealand String Quartet underlines the energetic passages in the first movement, the sweet yearning in the second movement, the ecstatic lullaby in the third movement and vigorous folk infected ideas in the fourth movement.

Listen — Janáček: Finale (String Quartet No 2)
(track 8, 7:38-8:10) ℗ 2021 Naxos Rights (Europe) Ltd :

In short, this is a love story in two quartets.

The two short sonnets are charming.

Copyright © 8 January 2022 Giuseppe Pennisi,
Rome, Italy







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