About this Recording
8.553895 - JANACEK: String Quartets / Violin Sonata / Pohádka
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Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)
String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2
Violin Sonata

"I want to be in direct contact with the clouds, I want to feast my eyes on the blue of the sky, I want to gather the sun's rays in my hands, I want to plunge myself in shadow, I want to pour out my longings to the full" (Lidové noviny, 29th March 1927). Creative visionary, operatic genius, teacher, folklorist, pioneer of a phrase and cadence based on the rhythms and rise and fall of his native tongue, Janáček, from Moravia, was the giant force, the poet-minstrel of Czech music following Smetana and Dvořák. "Speech-melody, the seat of the emotional furnace ... the vigour of broad fields and the worthlessness of the dust, 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 and blossoms and drinks from the roots, which wander in the waters of the mind" (Lidové 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 its inspiration to Leo Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata (1889), a tale of failed wedlock, 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 scherzos and slow movements ... the elements of dancing vivacity and passionate song are present all through". Its ferocious extremes, emotionally, technically, dynamically, place enormous demand on the players: "the instruments seem frustrated by the limits on their ability to communicate, like partners in a wasted marriage". The sub-structure of the four movements, fragmenting into numerous smaller contrasted sections, is temporally intricate yet without any loss of musical or psychological continuity. To what extent the work may have 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 Quartet in Prague on 14th October 1924.

The obsessive love of Janáček's old age was one Kamila Stösslová, an otherwise contentedly married woman thirty-eight years his junior. Many writers have assumed theirs to have been an "ardent physical passion". Others, however, have pointed to the fact that she apparently received his attentions with "little warmth or understanding". Janáček himself claimed only a "spiritual" union (18th January 1928). Originally to have been called Love Letters, with the viola replaced by a viola d'amore, the posthumously published Second Quartet (29th January-19th February 1928) portrays the intimacies and mind-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. It prevails. You are giving birth" (second movement, invoking a summer spent in a Moravian spa). "I have succeeded in writing a piece in which the earth begins to tremble ... Here I can find a place for my most beautiful melodies" (third movement). "[The finale] reflects the anguish I feel about you – however it eventually sounds not as fear but as the fulfilment of longing". "You know, sometimes feelings on their own are so strong and powerful that the notes hide under them and escape. A great love, a weak composition. But I want it to be a great love – a great composition." As with the First Quartet, the tapestry-like structure is distinctive. Following Janáček's death, the first public 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 the second ISCM Festival in Salzburg, belongs among the most radically imagined utterances ever conceived for such a classically referenced medium. Prefaced by a short unaccompanied violin improvisation, the first movement is a taut, quasi-monothematic sonata design, with a formal exposition repeat. Tripartite structures underline the Ballada ("nocturne", originally the third movement, published separately in 1915 with a different ending) and Allegretto ("scherzo") – characterized in the former by a developmental rather than literal reprise; and in the latter by the contrast of a simple Kátya Kabanová – like modal song with a harmonically richer and slower middle section. The closing G sharp minor Adagio, originally the second movement, is another essentially monothematic structure, with only a very terse second subject in the major. Its recapitulation is striking for the way in which the opening chorale, originally given to piano, is re-allocated to the violin against a new harmonic and textural background of agitated keyboard tremolos symbolic, according to the composer, of "the Russian armies entering Hungary" (26th September 1914). Janáček 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 heard in Brno 13th March 1910, Pohádka or Fairy Tale (1910, rev. 1923) was based on an epic poem by the Russo-Turkish "patriarch of the Golden Age", Vasíly Zhukóvsky. "The Tsar promises his new-born son Ivan in ransom to Kashchei the Undying, ruler of the Underworld. When he grows up Ivan learns of his father's fatal promise, and sets out to meet Kashchei. One evening he comes to a lake on which he sees thirty silver ducklings and, on the bank, thirty white gowns. He steals one of the gowns. The ducklings swim to the shore, twenty-nine of them putting on their gowns and turning into beautiful maidens. The thirtieth searches in vain for her gown. At last the Tsarevich takes pity on her, gives her the gown, and she changes into a maiden more beautiful than any of the others: she is the daughter of Kashchei himself. They fall instantly in love. With the help of the wise princess (who takes on various disguises, even turning herself into a fly), Ivan successfully accomplishes two tasks set him by the ruler of the Underworld. The lovers then escape on horseback, evading the pursuit of the sorcerer but not the intrigues of a neighbouring Tsar and Tsarina who try to marry off Ivan to their own daughter. The forsaken Princess Marya changes, in her grief, into a blue flower. However, on the eve of Ivan's marriage, a kind old man releases her from the spell, Ivan remembers her, and leads her back in happiness to his father's house" (précis translation by Geraldine Thomsen-Muchová, 1962). Focusing on Ivan and Marya, the lyricism and ardour of Janacek's response to this folk story add up to an extraordinary chamber experience shimmering in sound-prints only he could have imagined.

© Ateş Orga 1997

Vlach Quartet Prague
The Vlach Quartet Prague follows the rich tradition of Czech chamber music as successor to the famous Vlach Quartet led by the violinist Josef Vlach, father of Jana Vlachová and a strong influence on the work of the newer ensemble. The Vlach Quartet Prague, formerly the New Vlach Quartet, was founded in 1982, winning its first distinguished awards the following year and in 1985 first prize in the International String Quartet Competition in Portsmouth. In 1991 the quartet won the prize of the Czech Society for Chamber Music and the following year the prize of the Czech Music Fund for its recording of quartets by Smetana and Janáček. In addition to concert tours throughout Europe the quartet is active in the recording and broadcasting studio. The members of the Vlach Quartet Prague are the violinist Jana Vlachová and Ondrej Kukal, the viola-player Peter Verner and cellist Mikael Ericsson.

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