|About this Recording
8.550379 - SMETANA: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2
Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884)
String Quartet No.1 in E Minor,
"From my Life"
The last ten years of Bedřich Smetana’s life - he died at the age of 60 in 1884 - saw the gradual and total breakdown of his health, and the composition of some of his greatest music. All six symphonic poems in his cycle Má vlast, or ‘My country’, come from this time; so do several operas, and both of the string quartets. He had evolved a musical language that could lock into currents of national feeling beyond the reach of other Czech composers, most famously in his opera The Bartered Bride. He was a successful conductor and theatre administrator and had become a central figure in the musical life of Prague. Yet the first signs of illness were followed rapidly by the onset of deafness, which became complete within a few months. Although he was able to stay active as a musician, having the instincts and skills to continue performing with other players and the capacity to follow performances of music he knew by ‘reading’ the conductor’s beat, his last years became a struggle to keep mind as well as body together.
As far as the string quartets are concerned this case history is entirely relevant, for it affected the substance as well as the emotional ambience of the music. You do not need to know that No.1 has a story-telling element in order to enjoy and appreciate a work that follows 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 at the centre of the first movement. Smetana’s personal voice is clear in his turns of phrase and in the tight, foreshortened qualities of his large-scale forms. At the end, the reassembly and transformation of themes from earlier in the quartet is a practice that became increasingly common in 19th-century music after the symphonic poems and piano concertos of Liszt.
Smetana himself thought that the music’s autobiographical programme was essentially a private matter. There are strong dramatic undertones in the way that the buoyant finale suddenly collapses and ends in a subdued mood that seems to embody a sense of loss. Even so, there are strictly musical reasons why this should appear to be so: ideas from the first and last movements, initially radiant and confident, are slowed down and shown to be related. What remains unexplained is the wrench with which it happens, and the shrill, sustained high note that emerges on the violin. ‘I permitted myself this little joke because it was so disastrous to me " Smetana wrote wryly to a friend. He admitted that the note represented a high-pitched whistling that occurred inside his head every day when his deafness was starting. It is not a literal depiction -he told another friend that the noise was a chord of A flat. But he did go on to say that other aspects of the quartet symbolise, in a broad way, the course of his life. In the first movement it was a leaning towards art and inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define, and also a kind of warning of my future misfortune’ (and here he quotes the striking first entry of the viola at the start, which recurs at the finale’s collapse). The ‘quasi-polka’ of the second movement signals youthful joy, especially in dancing; the slow movement reminded him of first love, and the main part of the finale describes the elation 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 in March 1879. The second quartet dates from 1882-83, when he had great difficulty in keeping up sustained work - his doctor had in fact told him not to compose at all for the time being, and not even to read for more than a quarter of an hour. He was aware of his mental decline and failing memory, and had to keep re-reading what he had just written. Again there is a dimension of personal history, though a less specific one, relating to his state of psychological turbulence. It is hard to see how things could have been otherwise: themes emerge impulsively and alternate rather than interact or develop, and if the first quartet was sometimes elliptical in character the second is positively gnomic. Its most extended movement is the single relatively easy-going one, another polka, this time interspersed with calls like the Flying Dutchman’s and a slow, singing central section. But the rest proceeds in alternations of fast and slow, in epigrammatic utterances and occasional flights of tenderness or passion. Nominally in D minor, it spends most of its first few minutes establishing itself with increasing certainty in F major, then in the finale it reverses the process, with the D turning major for a lively conclusion.
This movement takes two or three minutes to play, yet it is so concisely worked for most of the way that players often make a cut just before the end, since the coda seems disproportionately long. There are imbalances in the previous movement between reflective tendencies and a positively operatic ferocity. Yet the unbiased ear, encountering the quartet for the first time, will surely hear it as radical and original, with its roots in the late quartets of Beethoven, which also have their irrational and epigrammatic side. The initial flourish and sweet answer, for instance, are essentially two aspects of the same idea, which works its way closely through the first movement; and the apparently baffling shape could be interpreted as a concise sonata movement which lacks a central development but instead takes off with a new episode after the reprise.
The quartet had its first performance in January 1884. Not everybody could make sense of it at the time; but with hindsight we can see clearly where both Smetana’s quartets stand in the burgeoning progress of Czech music. For where would Janácek’s chamber music be without the terse changes of direction, the national flavour, the sense of being the diary of a soul?
Smetana’s two attractive duos for violin 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 a folk-flavoured lyricism, though the second of them has its share of vivacious, dancing surprises. The pieces are dedicated to Prince Alexander Thurn- 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 members of the Moyzes Quartet, Stanislav Mucha, Frantisek Torok, Alexander Lakatos and Ján Slvik are employed as an ensemble of the Slovak Philharmonic, it’s name commemorating the distinguished Slovak composer Alexander Moyzes, who was director of Bratislava Conservatory until 1971 and as a teacher fostered a whole generation of Slovak composers.
Takako Nishizaki is one of the most frequently recorded violinists in the world today. She has recorded ten volumes of her complete Fritz Kreisler Edition, many contemporary Chinese violin concertos, among them the Concerto by Du Ming-xin, dedicated to her, and a growing number of rare, previously unrecorded violin concertos, among them concertos by Spohr, Beriot, Cui, Respighi, Rubinstein and Joachim. For Naxos she has recorded Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Mozart’s Violin Concertos, Sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven and the Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Bruch and Brahms Concertos.
Tatiana Franová has given concerts all around the world from India and the Soviet Union to Cuba and Brazil.
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