Right, so Leos Janacek’s two string quartets then. The one CD I have of these pieces, recorded by Quatuor Diotima has been playing here on and off for a couple of months now. I have come to like these pieces because of their unusual and unmistakable character. They sound, to me at least, to walk the fine line between sheer beauty and complete madness. When they settle back into quiet, reflective sections they are quite devastatingly beautiful, finely controlled filigree passages of minimal beauty. However when they burst into activity, they really do, and the more lively moments see dramatic shifts in dynamic and strong repeated melodic codas reappear often, really grabbing the listener and shaking them, forcing home the musical point.
Janacek only wrote the two quartets, and he did so with five years between them in 1923 and 1928 during the second half of what was an intense decade of creativity from the Czech composer. This period of activity coincided with an extraordinary relationship he had with Kamila Stosslova, a married woman who was an incredible thirty eight years his younger. At the time of writing the second quartet, which Janacek named The Intimate Letters after his written exchanges with Stosslova, the composer was near to death, aged seventy four. The music in these two quartets is extraordinarily emotive and directly expressive, and the undoubted joys and traumas of this relationship clearly come alive in the music. Janacek wrote to his young love after hearing some early private performances of the second quartet to tell her he had written directly with fireÂ The earlier first quartet does not, on the surface have any connection to Stosslova, as the piece is a musical response to a Tolstoy novel The Kreutzer Sonata, but the same emotions flowing through his life at this time will have been present in the powerful music of the first quartet, and indeed Janacek later wrote that he had envisaged his young love in the lead female character of Tolstoy’s work as he wrote the quartet.
So the music in these pieces is fiery, bouncy, moody, gentle, dangerous and calm. It sounds like the work of a slightly unhinged, and yet supremely emotional and romantic man. Different emotions come thick and fast, happy quirky little rhythms sit between gentle, forlorn passages and wildly flailing, violent attacks. The composition, while fantastically well written, capturing this rollercoaster of passion perfectly reflects the clearly slightly near the edge emotions of Janacek.
For me personally these pieces here seem to sound more like small symphonic work to me rather than string quartets as I know them. While symphonic form is never used the sense of storytelling in the music, the journey up and down through a raft of emotions feels more at home in orchestral music to me, but perhaps that is one of the reasons I like these quartets so much, they betray the thoroughly human concerns behind this music in a way I only really know in symphonic works, grand statements, false endings, moments that suggest intense sadness as well as bouncy, bright fun.Â I have found these pieces make great walking music. The emotive nature of things, the impassioned crescendoes in your ears as you walk puts a spring in your step, and an extra few miles can be added to the journey. Just sitting down tonight and listening carefully has been hard going this evening. I found myself tapping my foot from time to time. I find it impossible for this music to be playing and for it not to spark a reaction of some kind or another as I listen.
The CD I own also has a second version of the second quartet with the viola replaced by Janacek’s original instrument of choice, the viole d’amour, played here by Garth Knox, ex of the Arditti Quartet. The switch to this instrument gives the music more of a romantic warmth, all golds and reds rather than blues and greys. The CD notes also quite excellently have a section in which a painting (this time by Leon Spilliaert) is written about, explaining why it was chosen by the sleeve designer as the cover image. Te image, which is of a young woman sat on a chair in front of a window is perfect for the music, and the description of why it was chosen to accompany the Janacek piece is enlightening. We need more of this kind of information if you ask me.
So, this is massively powerful, busy, constantly changing and therefore inevitably a bit of a wild trip to listen to. It is, as I have said, real heart-on-the-sleeve stuff that will put off as many listeners as it encourages. For me personally it is highly enjoyable.