JANACEK: String Quartets / Violin Sonata / Pohadka (Frantisek Maly/ Jana Vlachova/ Mikael Ericsson/ Vlach Quartet Prague) (Naxos: 8.553895)
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String Quartets Nos. 1and 2
"I want to be in direct contact with the clouds, I want to feast myeyes on the blue of the sky, I want to gather the sun's rays in my hands, Iwant to plunge myself in shadow, I want to pour out my longings to thefull" (Lidove noviny, 29th March 1927). Creative visionary, operaticgenius, teacher, folklorist, pioneer of a phrase and cadence based on therhythms and rise and fall of his native tongue, Janaček, from Moravia, was the giant force, the poet-minstrel of Czech musicfollowing Smetana and Dvořak. "Speech-melody, the seat of theemotional furnace ... the vigour of broad fields and the worthlessness of thedust, dark ages and the spark of a thousandth fraction of one single second!... If speech-melody is the flower of a water-lily, it nevertheless buds andblossoms and drinks from the roots, which wander in the waters of themind" (Lidove noviny, 6th April 1918).
Written at white heat, at the request of the Bohemian (Czech) Quartet,the confessional First Quartet (30th October-7th November 1923) owed itsinspiration to Leo Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata (1889), a tale of failedwedlock, jealousy, adultery and murder, of the destructive power of passion.
"What I had in mind was the suffering of a [passive, enslaved] woman,beaten and tortured to death" (letter, 14th October 1924). Its form,classically negating, is one of remarkable freedom and personalised symbol:"life," says Paul Griffiths (1989) "is not cleanly divided into scherzosand slow movements ... the elements of dancing vivacity and passionate song arepresent all through". Its ferocious extremes, emotionally, technically,dynamically, place enormous demand on the players: "the instruments seemfrustrated by the limits on their ability to communicate, like partners in awasted marriage". The sub-structure of the four movements, fragmentinginto numerous smaller contrasted sections, is temporally intricate yet withoutany loss of musical or psychological continuity. To what extent the work mayhave salvaged material from a lost piano trio based on the same Tolstoy story(1908-09) is unclear. The first performance was given by the Bohemian Quartetin Prague on 14th October 1924.
The obsessive love of Janaček's old age was oneKamila Stosslova, an otherwise contentedly married woman thirty-eight years hisjunior. Many writers have assumed theirs to have been an "ardent physicalpassion". Others, however, have pointed to the fact that she apparentlyreceived his attentions with "little warmth or understanding". Janaček himself claimed only a "spiritual"union (18th January 1928). Originally to have been called Love Letters, withthe viola replaced by a viola d'amore, the posthumously published SecondQuartet (29th January-19th February 1928) portrays the intimacies andmind-games of their relationship. "Our life is going to be in it.""Today I wrote in musical tones my sweetest desire. I struggle with it. Itprevails. You are giving birth" (second movement, invoking a summer spentin a Moravian spa). "I have succeeded in writing a piece in which theearth begins to tremble ... Here I can find a place for my most beautifulmelodies" (third movement). "[The finale] reflects the anguish I feelabout you - however it eventually sounds not as fear but as the fulfilment oflonging". "You know, sometimes feelings on their own are so strongand powerful that the notes hide under them and escape. A great love, a weakcomposition. But I want it to be a great love - a great composition." Aswith the First Quartet, the tapestry-like structure is distinctive.
Following Janaček's death, the firstpublic performance was given by the Moravian Quartet in Brno, the"blazing, victorious" city of his maturity on 11th September 1928.
Extensively revised, the Violin Sonata in A flat minor (1914-21),first performed in Brno in 1922 before being heard the following year at thesecond ISCM Festival in Salzburg, belongs among the most radically imaginedutterances ever conceived for such a classically referenced medium. Prefaced bya short unaccompanied violin improvisation, the first movement is a taut,quasi-monothematic sonata design, with a formal exposition repeat. Tripartitestructures underline the Ballada ("nocturne", originally thethird movement, published separately in 1915 with a different ending) and Allegretto("scherzo") - characterized in the former by a developmentalrather than literal reprise; and in the latter by the contrast of a simple KatyaKabanova - like modal song with a harmonically richer and slower middlesection. The closing G sharp minor Adagio, originally the secondmovement, is another essentially monothematic structure, with only a very tersesecond subject in the major. Its recapitulation is striking for the way inwhich the opening chorale, originally given to piano, is re-allocated to theviolin against a new harmonic and textural background of agitated keyboardtremolos symbolic, according to the composer, of "the Russian armiesentering Hungary" (26th September 1914). Janaček always had a liking for the Adagio and Ballada: in them,he maintained, was "some truth".
Effectively a concentrated cello sonata in three movements, first heardin Brno 13th March 1910, Pohadka or Fairy Tale (1910, rev. 1923)was based on an epic poem by the Russo-Turkish "patriarch of the GoldenAge", Vasily Zhukovsky. "The Tsar promises his new-born son Ivan inransom to Kashchei the Undying, ruler of the Underworld. When he grows up Ivanlearns of his father's fatal promise, and sets out to meet Kashchei. Oneevening he comes to a lake on which he sees thirty silver ducklings and, on thebank, thirty white gowns. He steals one of the gowns. The ducklings swim to theshore, twenty-nine of them putting on their gowns and turning into beautifulmaidens. The thirtieth searches in vain for her gown. At last the Tsarevichtakes pity on her, gives her the gown, and she changes into a maiden morebeautiful than any of the others: she is the daughter of Kashchei himself. Theyfall instantly in love. With the help of the wise princess (who takes onvarious disguises, even turning herself into a fly), Ivan successfullyaccomplishes two tasks set him by the ruler of the Underworld. The lovers thenescape on horseback, evading the pursuit of the sorcerer but not the intriguesof a neighbouring Tsar and Tsarina who try to marry off Ivan to their owndaughter. The forsaken Princess Marya changes, in her grief, into a blueflower. However, on the eve of Ivan's marriage, a kind old man releases herfrom the spell, Ivan remembers her, and leads her back in happiness to hisfather's house" (precis translation by Geraldine Thomsen-Muchova, 1962).
Focusing on Ivan and Marya, the lyricism and ardour of Janacek's response tothis folk story add up to an extraordinary chamber experience shimmering insound-prints only he could have imagined.
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Vlach Quartet Prague
The Vlach Quartet Prague follows the rich tradition of Czech chambermusic as successor to the famous Vlach Quartet led by the violinist JosefVlach, father of Jana Vlachova and a strong influence on the work of the newerensemble. The Vlach Quartet Prague, formerly the New Vlach Quartet, was foundedin 1982, winning its first distinguished awards the following year and in 1985first prize in the Interna