Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Listy důvěrné

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Janacek String Quartets 1 & 2 (the "Kruetzer Sonata" quartet and "Intimate Letters"), M. Nostitz Quartet. When I visited Prague in '95, I took in the usual sights and libations, but I also had the great good fortune to hear the Suk Quartet play, if I recall correctly, works by their namesake, as well as a number of other Czech composers. I don't think Janacek was among them, but I liked the sound of Czech string writing, and in my subsequent browsing among the great Bohemian and Moravian composers (Smetana, Suk, Martinu, Schulhoff, and that Antonin fellow), I discovered Janacek's mercurial and truly original genius, which towers over his compatriots in my book.

I can think of few other composers working in a basically tonal framework who come as close as Janacek does to stretching and shredding his thematic material--he can both portray and create nervy, chaotic effects, palpitations, screams, weird gaping pauses--without losing track of his natural melodic gift or his sense of compositional shape. Few 20th-century composers used folk-song material with as little sentimentality or cynicism, or understood the natural drama of sound dynamics as well, or generated such odd but entirely convincing meters, which have the logic of speech or birdsong as much as conventional concert or dance music.

Indeed, there's nothing I've heard by Janacek I don't cherish (The Cunning Little Vixen being a particular favorite), but these two sweet-and-sour quartets, which are hard not to think of as a pair, are the pinnacle for me. They were written programmatically--with specific stories and texts in mind--but it's less important to know the details than to hear these as the musical equivalent of Eisensteinian montages, as expertly spliced narratives with their own relentless storytelling momentum and an emphasis on terrifying but beautiful close-ups.

I'll only add that these are pieces best seen/heard live, as I did the Prazak Quartet at Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 2008 (just the Kreutzer quartet, actually, paired with Smetana's great "From My Life" quartet). Their difficulty and drama make them compulsively pleasurable as shared listening experiences.

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