SMETANA: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 (Gunter Appenheimer/ Karol Kopernicky/ Moyzes Quartet/ Takako Nishizaki/ Tatjana Franova) (Naxos: 8.550379)
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Bedřich Smetana (1824 - 1884)
String Quartet No.1 in E Minor,"From my Life"
String Quartet No.2 in D Minor
Two Pieces for Violin and Piano,"From my Homeland"
The last ten years of BedřichSmetana's life - he died at the age of 60 in 1884 - saw the gradual and totalbreakdown of his health, and the composition of some of his greatest music. Allsix symphonic poems in his cycle Ma vlast, or 'My country', come fromthis time; so do several operas, and both of the string quartets. He hadevolved a musical language that could lock into currents of national feelingbeyond the reach of other Czech composers, most famously in his opera TheBartered Bride. He was a successful conductor and theatre administrator andhad become a central figure in the musical life of Prague. Yet the first signsof illness were followed rapidly by the onset of deafness, which becamecomplete within a few months. Although he was able to stay active as amusician, having the instincts and skills to continue performing with other playersand the capacity to follow performances of music he knew by 'reading' theconductor's beat, his last years became a struggle to keep mind as well as bodytogether.
As far as the string quartets areconcerned this case history is entirely relevant, for it affected the substanceas well as the emotional ambience of the music. You do not need to know thatNo.1 has a story-telling element in order to enjoy and appreciate a work thatfollows the tradition of Schubert in many ways: there are echoes in the harmony,in the static, brooding music of the opening and in the vigorous outbursts atthe centre of the first movement. Smetana's personal voice is clear in histurns of phrase and in the tight, foreshortened qualities of his large-scaleforms. At the end, the reassembly and transformation of themes from earlier inthe quartet is a practice that became increasingly common in 19th-century musicafter the symphonic poems and piano concertos of Liszt.
Smetana himself thought that the music'sautobiographical programme was essentially a private matter. There are strongdramatic undertones in the way that the buoyant finale suddenly collapses andends in a subdued mood that seems to embody a sense of loss. Even so, there arestrictly musical reasons why this should appear to be so: ideas from the firstand last movements, initially radiant and confident, are slowed down and shownto be related. What remains unexplained is the wrench with which it happens,and the shrill, sustained high note that emerges on the violin. 'I permittedmyself this little joke because it was so disastrous to me " Smetana wrotewryly to a friend. He admitted that the note represented a high-pitchedwhistling that occurred inside his head every day when his deafness wasstarting. It is not a literal depiction -he told another friend that the noisewas a chord of A flat. But he did go on to say that other aspects of thequartet symbolise, in a broad way, the course of his life. In the firstmovement it was a leaning towards art and inexpressible yearning for somethingI could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my futuremisfortune' (and here he quotes the striking first entry of the viola at thestart, which recurs at the finale's collapse). The 'quasi-polka' of the secondmovement signals youthful joy, especially in dancing; the slow movementreminded him of first love, and the main part of the finale describes theelation of discovering he could instil national elements into his music.
He wrote the quartet at the end of 1876,some two years after the deafness had struck, and it was first performed inMarch 1879. The second quartet dates from 1882-83, when he had great difficultyin keeping up sustained work - his doctor had in fact told him not to composeat all for the time being, and not even to read for more than a quarter of anhour. He was aware of his mental decline and failing memory, and had to keepre-reading what he had just written. Again there is a dimension of personalhistory, though a less specific one, relating to his state of psychologicalturbulence. It is hard to see how things could have been otherwise: themesemerge impulsively and alternate rather than interact or develop, and if thefirst quartet was sometimes elliptical in character the second is positivelygnomic. Its most extended movement is the single relatively easy-going one,another polka, this time interspersed with calls like the Flying Dutchman'sand a slow, singing central section. But the rest proceeds in alternations offast and slow, in epigrammatic utterances and occasional flights of tendernessor passion. Nominally in D minor, it spends most of its first few minutesestablishing itself with increasing certainty in F major, then in the finale itreverses the process, with the D turning major for a lively conclusion.
This movement takes two or three minutesto play, yet it is so concisely worked for most of the way that players oftenmake a cut just before the end, since the coda seems disproportionately long.
There are imbalances in the previous movement between reflective tendencies anda positively operatic ferocity. Yet the unbiased ear, encountering the quartetfor the first time, will surely hear it as radical and original, with its rootsin the late quartets of Beethoven, which also have their irrational andepigrammatic side. The initial flourish and sweet answer, for instance, areessentially two aspects of the same idea, which works its way closely throughthe first movement; and the apparently baffling shape could be interpreted as aconcise sonata movement which lacks a central development but instead takes offwith a new episode after the reprise.
The quartet had its first performance inJanuary 1884. Not everybody could make sense of it at the time; but withhindsight we can see clearly where both Smetana's quartets stand in theburgeoning progress of Czech music. For where would Janacek's chamber music bewithout the terse changes of direction, the national flavour, the sense ofbeing the diary of a soul?
Smetana's two attractive duos forviolin and piano under the title Z domoviny (From my home, or homeland)date from 1880 - between the quartets. Complexity is kept at bay here by afolk-flavoured lyricism, though the second of them has its share of vivacious,dancing surprises. The pieces are dedicated to Prince Alexander Thrn- Taxis,who belonged to a family that had provided the composer with patronage before,and on this occasion gave him in return a decorated ivory snuff-box.
The Moyzes Quartet was established in1975 while the members of the quartet were still students at The Conservatoryin Bratislava. The ensemble was able to participate in various courses abroadbefore winning prizes in Bratislava, Florence, Evian and elsewhere. Since 1982 thequartet has appeared in concerts at home and abroad, with tours of Bulgaria,Italy, France and West Germany.
The members of the Moyzes Quartet,Stanislav Mucha, Frantisek Torok, Alexander Lakatos and Jan Slvik are employedas an ensemble of the Slovak Philharmonic, it's name commemorating thedistinguished Slovak composer Alexander Moyzes, who was director of BratislavaConservatory until 1971 and as a teacher fostered a whole generation of Slovakcomposers.
Takako Nishizaki is one of Japan's finestviolinists. After studying with her father, Shinji Nishizaki, she became thefirst student of Shinichi Suzuki, the creator of the famous Suzuki Method ofviolin teaching for children. Subsequently she went to Japan's famo