Thursday, March 9, 2017

Leoš Janáček; Bedřich Smetana - String Quartets (Takács Quartet)


Composer: Bedřich Smetana; Leoš Janáček
  • (01-04) Smetana - String Quartet No. 1 in E minor 'From my life'
  • (05-08) Janáček - String Quartet No. 1 'The Kreutzer Sonata', JW VII/8
  • (09-12) Janáček - String Quartet No. 2 'Intimate letters', JW VII/13

Takács Quartet
Edward Dusinberre, violin
Károly Schranz, violin
Geraldine Walther, viola
András Fejér, cello

Date: 2015
Label: Hyperion



It’s never an easy ask, playing Janáček’s string quartets. Then playing them well. Then playing them this well. But the Takács Quartet, being the Takács Quartet, have made it harder for themselves than that, by including Smetana’s First String Quartet as a bonus. Coming so soon after the Pavel Haas Quartet’s benchmark reading of the Smetana (a 2015 Gramophone Award-winner), this is an unfortunately timed release.

But it is a significant one nonetheless, if only because Janáček is clearly the main attraction. It certainly brings out the best in the Takács, who expertly negotiate the music’s paradoxical demands. On the one hand, there’s the illusion of wild, rasping abandon, a willingness to embrace the rough-grained sound world without inhibition. On the other, not a note seems to be out of place. The musicians handle the harsh gear-shifts with flawless rhythmic control, most obviously in the lurching third movement of the First Quartet. It is chiefly their emotional agility, however, that makes this disc so compelling, placing the emphasis where it should be: on the works’ underlying narratives.

What keeps us gripped, in this Kreutzer Sonata, is not just the stranglehold of a jealous husband’s rage but also the sense of sobbing despair – an element underplayed in too many interpretations. Listen to first violinist Edward Dusinberre at the opening of the fourth movement; neither the Pavel Haas nor Talich quartets simulate tears so convincingly. Meanwhile, Intimate Letters gives us far more than a list of tender confessions, namely a reminder of just how violent the Takács can sound. Occasionally I was left wanting even more. The scream of pain at 2'45" into the third movement of Intimate Letters, for example, doesn’t quite lacerate like the Talich’s. Still, in terms of sheer drive, this Janáček competes with the finest.

You’d be hard-pressed to say the same of the Smetana. From the outset, where viola player Geraldine Walther plunges into her solo, this reading never reaches the temperatures of the Pavel Haas Quartet. Not that there isn’t plenty to admire. The Takács fully reflect the work’s autobiographical nature, indulging its moments of poignant introspection. But it’s in the sun-soaked charm of the second movement and the exuberant opening to the fourth that they reveal themselves at their hot headed best.

-- Hannah NepilGramophone

More reviews:
BBC Music Magazine  PERFORMANCE: **** / RECORDING: ****
MusicWeb International  RECORDING OF THE MONTH


Leoš Janáček (3 July 1854 – 12 August 1928) was a Czech composer, musical theorist, folklorist, publicist and teacher. He was inspired by Moravian and other Slavic folk music to create an original, modern musical style. Much of Janáček's work displays great originality and individuality. Janáček belongs to a wave of twentieth-century composers who sought greater realism and greater connection with everyday life, combined with a more all-encompassing use of musical resources. Janáček is considered one of the most important Czech composers, along with Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana.


Bedřich Smetana (2 March 1824 – 12 May 1884) was a Czech composer who pioneered the development of a musical style which became closely identified with his country's aspirations to independent statehood. The basic materials from which Smetana fashioned his art, according to Newmarch, were nationalism, realism and romanticism. He is thus widely regarded in his homeland as the father of Czech music. Internationally he is best known for his opera The Bartered Bride and for the symphonic cycle Má vlast ("My Homeland"), which portrays the history, legends and landscape of the composer's native land.


Takács Quartet is a string quartet, founded in Hungary, and now based in Boulder, Colorado, United States. In 1975, four students at the Music Academy in Budapest, Gábor Takács-Nagy (first violin), Károly Schranz (second violin), Gábor Ormai (viola), and András Fejér (cello) formed The Takács Quartet. Current members include: Edward Dusinberre & Károly Schranz (violins), Geraldine Walther (viola), and András Fejér (cello). The quartet has recorded for Decca and Hyperion.


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