Smetana’s First String Quartet
is appropriately subtitled “From My Life” because, unlike many celebrities who “write” their autobiographies when they’ve hardly had one Smetana was 52 when he composed it. He would die only eight years later. It was originally planned to have been performed at a concert held by a chamber music society set up by Josef Srb one of Smetana’s pupils. Srb was later to become his secretary following his going deaf. Sadly the quartet’s advanced style rendered the work unplayable by the musicians at the society's disposal. It had to wait until 1878 for a performance in Srb’s apartment with no less a person than Dvořák playing the viola. When Smetana sent Srb the score so that it could be copied he accompanied it with a long letter fully explaining its programme: The first movement depicts his youthful love for the arts, his desire for things that could not be clearly expressed in words and a foreboding of tragedies to come. The latter included the long sustained tone meant to represent the whistling that warned him of his impending deafness. The overall mood is one of serious reflection with long flowing lines which would surely have presented no especial problems to the players.
The second movement is a gaily proclaimed allusion to a polka denoting Smetana’s love of dance and pointing to the many dance pieces he composed in his youth. It is very typically Czech. It is the central core of this movement which it seems to have caused so many challenges to musicians at the time. Today it appears to present no difficulties for the myriad string quartets that have made this work part of standard chamber music repertoire.
The third movement is the longest and is meant to represent Smetana’s love for the woman who would later become his wife. It evokes the blissful state he was in and this is marvellously captured in its beautifully written passages. One can easily identify with his feelings especially after reading of his past sorrows; the death in infancy of three of his daughters, one from scarlet fever and one from tuberculosis which would later also kill his first wife. Meeting and falling in love with Barbora Ferninandlovŕ, his youngest brother Karel’s sister-in-law, sixteen years his junior must indeed have felt like a dream come true after such past tragedies.
The final movement is designed to express his immersion in folk music, his thrill at discovering its riches and his subsequent use of it in his compositions. All of this is shown through its joyful beginning which is maintained until just over half way through. At this point the mood changes dramatically reflecting the time when his life was disrupted by the onset of deafness. This presaged an uncertain and likely miserable future without promise of better times ahead. We sense this from the a much more sombre and dark ending to the quartet that just peters out on a single note. He ended his life in an asylum doubtless without ever being aware that he was considered the father of Czech music with his opera The Bartered Bride
, symphonic cycle Má Vlast
and First Quartet considered pillars of Czech music.
Smetana’s String Quartet No.2
is one of his last compositions having been completed just 13 months before his death, aged 60. His champion Jan Ludevit Procházka encouraged him to keep writing chamber works since he knew these went down well in Germany and would thereby help secure his reputation. Writing to Procházka, Smetana expressed the difficulties he was having in creating this quartet. He felt that the opening movement was very complex and would cause problems for the players. Feeling both depressed and weak he seemed unable to add to it. However, he eventually managed to finish it and the work was once again given its first performance in Josef Srb’s apartment. Although it was premiered in January 1884 just four months before Smetana’s death it had to wait until the 60th
anniversary of his death before a critical edition was published that corrected various errors. His assessment of its opening movement is certainly understandable. Despite its gentle opening it soon exudes complexity by late 19th
century terms with what he himself described as “a kind of chaos dominating throughout”.
The second movement draws on the alternating rhythms of a polka and a waltz each used as a kind of conversation. A brightly stated polka provides an upbeat statement contrasted with the more serious riposte of the waltz presenting the other side of the argument. The third movement is generally sombre in character and is the most complex musically speaking. A seeming conflict is enacted ending with a strong feeling of despair. The finale grows out of the end of the third and in it the conflict seems to be resolved as the composer musters all his strength to end this quartet in a flurry. This contrasts with the weariness implied in the previous movements. Schönberg particularly favoured this quartet which is unsurprising since from it he drew inspiration for his contribution to the development of new trends in European music.
There is no doubt that the Pavel Haas quartet inhabit these works and while it is true that you don’t have to be Czech to draw the most from this music it certainly helps. The folk element that is so prevalent in Czech composers’ works is something all Czech players will have grown up with all their lives. Nearly 25 years separates the other recording I have used as comparison; that from the Stamitz Quartet (Bohuslav Matousek (1st violin), Josef Kekula (2nd
violin), Jan Peruska (viola) and Vladimir Leixner (cello)). The Stamitz are sedate with close attention to detail but the Pavel Haas bring a youthful vibrancy and urgency that elevates their performance to what is a new benchmark. This young quartet draws raw emotion from the notes while, by contrast, their playing of the second movement of the first quartet has such verve and youthful energy that one cannot fail to feel uplifted.
In the second quartet this young band establishes a feeling of poignancy within the first few seconds of its opening. The Stamitz appear detached and uninvolved by comparison. In the second movement the Pavel Haas Quartet manages to define the dialogue between the polka and waltz perfectly while the Stamitz make the case with less clarity and with a much more lacklustre approach that misses the point. The two approaches continue through to the end of the disc. Generally the Pavel Haas Quartet bring much more attack to their performance which gives the impression that the musicians really care
about what they’re playing. Sad to say that the Stamitz seem to be going through the motions without an obvious sense of commitment as if it were simply another engagement in the studio. However, it is also true that the Stamitz is not helped by a generally muddy sound which with the advances that have ensued in the past 25 years have given modern interpretations a huge advantage. The Pavel Haas Quartet is served by a superlative recording that is so crisp by comparison with the older one as to give the impression of totally different works.
In conclusion there is little doubt this new recording has established a new standard against which any future recordings will be measured for a long time to come. They bring an irresistible freshness as well as a deep feeling of poignancy that makes the case for these two masterworks better than I have ever heard before. This is a truly memorable disc that must surely find a place in anyone’s CD collection.
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