Janáček & Ligeti: String Quartets (CD)

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Belcea Quartet

Formed in 1994 at the Royal College of Music in London, the Belcea Quartet already has an impressive discography, including the complete Beethoven string quartets. For this new recording, the ensemble has chosen three quartets by two iconic composers of the 20th century: Leos Janáček and György Ligeti.

Fifteen years after their first recording for Zig-Zag, and after some changes in personnel, they have decided to record again the two string quartets by Janáček. The First Quartet was inspired by Leon Tolstoy’s famous novella, The Kreutzer Sonata: the four-movement work follows the narrative, including its culminating murder. The Second Quartet is subtitled Intimate Letters, in homage to Kamila Stösslova, with whom the composer had an important relationship expressed through letters, one that influenced both his life and his music.

Finally, the First Quartet by Ligeti, subtitled Métamorphoses nocturnes because of its particular form. The composer described the work as a sort of theme and variations, but not with a specific theme that is then subsequently varied: rather, it is a single musical thought appearing under constantly new guises – for this reason the word ‘metamophoses’ is more appropriate than ‘variations’.

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Tracklisting:

Leoš Janáček: String Quartet No.1 'Kreutzer Sonata'
1. I. Adagio con moto
2. II. Con moto
3. III. Con moto - Vivace - Andante - Tempo I
4. IV. Con moto

Leoš Janáček:  String Quartet No.2 'Intimate Letters'
5. I. Andante - Con moto - Allegro
6. II. Adagio - Vivace
7. III. Moderato - Andante - Adagio
9. IV. Allegro - Andante – Adagio

9. György Ligeti: String Quartet No.1 ‘Métamorphoses Nocturnes’

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Detailed, Revealing Readings of Three Major String Quartets

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In his old age, Leos Janáček formed an obsessive interest in a girl 38 years his junior, much to his long-suffering wife's displeasure, and music poured from him as a result. The works most specifically linked to this one-sided romance (today we would call it stalking) are his two string quartets (1923 and 1928). The Second was Janáček's final composition: he died shortly after its completion.

The First Quartet was inspired by a short story by Leo Tolstoy, "The Kreutzer Sonata", about a pianist who falls in love with a violinist as they work on Beethoven's sonata. The violinist's husband stabs her to death in a jealous rage, as they did in those days. Quartet No. 2, subtitled 'Intimate Letters', is a musical representation of the love-letters that passed between Janáček and his young girlfriend. Both are highly romantic pieces, and can easily sound overwrought. I listened for comparison to a recording by the Hagen Quartet (DG, reissued by Newton Classics): a Viennese quartet, the Hagens play elegantly with beautiful, burnished tone. The result is lovely, but wrong. This is not Viennese music.

The Belcea Quartet (based in Britain) offers us something much more vivid. Both works are structured in Janáček's usual way, made up of contrasting episodes and sudden shifts of mood with no smooth transitions, but in spite of the similarities I like how the Belcea musicians differentiate between the two quartets. 'The Kreutzer Sonata' tells a story, so the Belcea's pointed and dramatic reading reflects that: they almost recreate the dialogue of the situation. The quiet moments have such a hushed intimacy about them, it's almost as though the listener is eavesdropping. In contrast, the more "heart on sleeve" writing of the 'Intimate Letters' Quartet receives a strong, passionate performance. It is not overdone, but Janáček's ardent outbursts are given full weight. The Belcea's modern, sharply detailed approach suits these two idiomatic works perfectly.

György Ligeti (1923-2006) was one of the most original creative musicians of the 20th Century, and one of the few avant-garde composers whose sense of humour shone through in their work. His String Quartet No. 1, 'Metamorphoses Nocturnes' dates from 1951-2. It is an early opus, still showing an influence of Hungarian folk music and Bartók, and pre-dating the later experimental works. Even so, with the initial sliding string chords you know you are listening to an individual voice. Again, the Belcea Quartet relish every textural detail, bringing to life music they clearly believe in.

A very fine recording, and an intelligent program: Ligeti's music serves to show how progressive Janáček's style was, a half a century earlier. 5 STARS