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Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
On an Overgrown Path (Book 1) (1901-08, arr. for string quartet by Jarmil Burghauser) [32:07]
On an Overgrown Path (Book 2) (posth., arr. for string quartet by Tomáš Ille) [19:42]
In the Mists (1912) [18:59]
The Czech Philharmonic Quartet (Štĕpán Pražák (1st violin), Viktor Mazáček (2nd violin), Jiří Poslední (viola), Jakub Dvořák (cello))
rec. Dvořák Hall of the Prague Rudolfinum, 2017
ARCO DIVA UP0199-2131 [61:19]

One of my listening discoveries of 2016 was a revelatory disc by the Quartetto Energie Nove on Dynamic of the original versions of Janáček's extraordinary two string quartets coupled with Jarmil Burghauser's arrangement of the first book of the piano cycle On an overgrown path for quartet. I thought these arrangements to be a wonderful addition to the quartet literature and I still do. And as with any great work it is always a fascinating pleasure to be able to hear different approaches to the same music. So it was with considerable pleasure that I approached listening to this new disc from the Czech Philharmonic Quartet, especially since they couple the Burghauser arrangements with new versions of the 2nd book of the piano cycle together with a version for quartet of another Janáček keyboard work; In the Mists. Both of these 'new' cycles have been prepared by composer Tomáš Ille. Ille's work might well already be familiar to collectors as he arranged the orchestral suite from Strauss' Elecktra and Dvořák's Rusalka on recent Reference Recordings discs for Manfred Honeck and the Pittsburgh SO.

As might be surmised, The Czech Philharmonic Quartet are drawn from the orchestra of that name. I would suggest that the Czech PO are one of the last great orchestras of the world who have not had their collective sound modified by the effects of orchestral globalisation. A quick look at the players’ roster will show that this is still very much a group of Czech/Slovak players brought up in the musical traditions of their country. It’s a perennial debate but I do feel there are musical benefits from hearing music played by performers who have this music in their blood. Especially so with a composer such as Janáček who used national speech and dance rhythms to such individual effect in his music. Suffice to say the Czech Philharmonic Quartet make a glorious sound, rich and deep across all four instruments. The tonal blend and mellifluousness is almost organ-like in its balance and precision. There is a however; I am not certain that this extremely cultured and beautifully controlled style is best suited to Janáček. In direct comparison with the Quartetto Energie Nove in the first book of On an overgrown path, I feel that this new recording smoothes away too many of the near-expressionist extremes that Janáček demands. This is less of an issue in the simpler, more overtly folk-like pieces such as No.1 Our Evenings or No.3 Come with us, where in fact this approach reminds you that Janáček was a contemporary of the earlier Bohemian composers. But once you reach pieces such as No.4 The Madonna of Frydek or No.8 Unutterable Anguish, the earlier performance elevates the music to something quite remarkable and deeply moving. The Quartetto Energie Nove seem willing to push to boundaries of the expressive envelope much ,more than their cultured Czech counterparts.

For sure, at the climax of the eighth movement mentioned above the Czech players produce a weight of remarkable string sonority that the Quartetto Energie Nove do not try to create. But the way in which the Italian players approach that climax shudders with much more spiritual pain than the Czech quartet produce. It is worth noting that the overall timings of the two versions are significantly different; the earlier version is a drivingly urgent four minutes quicker than the lush and rich new recording. For want of a better description, the new version gives us what is on the page in superbly realised performances, the Quartetto Energie Nove gives us 'what lies beneath' – which I personally prefer and find more moving and involving.

Moving onto the new arrangements by Ille, I have no direct comparisons to make. I was curious to see what Ille's approach as an arranger would be. Would he – as Burghauser did – seek to transcribe the music 'in the style of Janáček' or would this be a more modernist/interventionist approach 'after Janáček'? In fact it turns out to be the former and as such provides a very rewarding and valuable supplement to the Burghauser set. As I wrote previously – and to which now I would append Ille's arrangements – these are a very valuable addition to the repertoire for quartets wanting to explore this composer's work beyond the existing quartets. Without comparisons to make, I found I was focusing more on the high quality music making of this group. They play superbly well together but this does still sound more often than not like late Dvořák with the occasional sul ponticello rather than Janáček.

In terms of being a practical addition to the regular repertoire it might well be that this new version of In the Mists makes the most immediate impact. The four movements present themselves as a 'classic' string quartet and Ille's transcription is very successful indeed – to the point where you return to the piano original and miss some of the string effects. The fascination is that the majority of Janáček's keyboard works pre-date the orchestral and operatic works on which his fame mainly resides – with Jenufa the obvious exception – while the two string quartets are among his latest works. Yet, by transcribing these piano works into the quartet idiom, there become apparent parallels and pre-echoes that are both fascinating and powerfully engaging. So, while my attachment to the Quartetto Energie Nove remains unchallenged where the repertoire overlaps, the new music offered here – and especially In the Mists – makes this a disc that I would urge all aficionados of the composer and the 20th Century string quartet as a genre to hear.

Technically, I am not completely comfortable with the recording given the quartet. In essence they are recorded quite closely, which emphasises the audible intakes of breath while minimising the dynamic range they project. But then there is quite a lot of acoustic overhang from the resonant Dvořák Halle of the Prague Rudolfinum. Personally I would prefer a slightly more distanced recording in a more neutral acoustic – as recorded the sound gives the quartet a warmth and glamour that again I do not feels is wholly appropriate to the music. That said, the skill and technical accomplishment of all of the quartet players is such that they can bear the close scrutiny the recording gives them. The presentation of the disc is delight - quite one of the most attractive I have seen recently. This is a cardboard tri-fold which opens out to reveal a very beautiful landscape photograph of a misty autumnal woodland. The CD sits in the central panel with part of the same woodland photograph printed onto it, allowing the disc to become part of the larger image. The liner – in English and Czech only – is then tucked into the right hand panel, again leaving the main picture untouched. Well done to whoever designed and conceived this. The liner contains a brief note from arranger Tomáš Ille, expressing his enthusiasm for the project, as well as a brief biography of the quartet and various testimonials to their quality. Sadly, no detail or information is given about the original works or indeed the other arranger Jarmil Burghauser.

This disc leaves me in no doubt as to the value and quality of these arrangements of Janáček's music for string quartet. I would be genuinely surprised if more ensembles do not seek to include them in their concert and recording repertoire. If I would not swap this new disc for the earlier Quartetto Energie Nove performance, this can sit alongside that one as a valuable alternative approach and for In the Mists, a major addition to the Janáček recorded catalogue.

Nick Barnard

 




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