Schulhoff, Sibelius, Janacek: String Quartets

Photo: Schulhoff, Sibelius, Janacek: String Quartets



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Erwin Schulhoff String Quartet No. 1.
Jean Sibelius String Quartet In D Minor Op. 56 “Voces Intimae”.
Leoš Janáček String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata”.


Henschel Quartett.
STRING QUARTETS BY SCHULHOFF – SIBELIUS – JANÁČEK Three striking early 20th-century additions to the quartet repertoire. Two propulsive pieces that caused an uproar in the 1920s and, in contrast, a lyrical confession from the fin de siècle. Two prime examples of the avant-garde from the newly founded republic of Czechoslovakia flanking a gaunt and introverted earlier piece by the great Finnish national composer, a piece already harbouring the audacities of his late style. Three temperaments, three age groups, three modes of expression, all juxtaposed and complementing each other, allowing us to glimpse the rich possibilities of their era. Erwin Schulhoff – String Quartet No. 1 Before he achieved his breakthrough as a composer of string quartets, Erwin Schulhoff had the image of a brilliant pianist who occasionally played his own music. This changed with his Five Pieces of 1923, a study in Slavonic folk music that caught the imagination of the Czech Quartet, or, as it was also known, the Zika Quartet, named after its first violinist Richard Zika and its cellist Ladislav Zika. This same ensemble played Schulhoff’s most recent quartet, later called No. 1, at the ISCM Festival in Venice on 3 September 1925. It cast an unreal light on such virtuoso elements as timbral effects – changes of mutes, sul ponticello and col legno bowing. The Presto con fuoco is dominated by a tone of steely coarseness and brittle radiance. Open fifths rage through the auditorium, taking command of it only to be countered by hissed commentary. In the Allegretto con moto e con malinconia grotesca (with melancholy bordering on the grotesque), the melody is embedded in a shivering, silvery, volatile accompaniment. Gripping rhythms pervade the Allegretto giocoso alla Slovacca, a stylised dance distorted with an exotic interlude. Shadows, reflections and after-images haunt the brain in the Andante molto sostenuto: somnambulistic cadenzas above soft tremolos. A gentle breeze wafts across the fields, brushing the blades of grass. For a while Schulhoff was much in demand, received commissions, enjoyed success. But his working conditions deteriorated in the 1930s. He suffered from the clash of nationalities in Czechoslovakia and, being Jewish, lost his job as a radio pianist in 1939. Trusting in the quick demise of the Nazi occupation, he missed the opportunity to emigrate. He died in 1942, imprisoned in the Wülzburg internment camp for foreign nationals near the town of Weissenburg in Middle Franconia. The final movement of his last work, the Eighth Symphony, was composed in the camp. It remained a fragment. Jean Sibelius – String Quartet in D minor, op. 56 “Voces intimae” Jean Sibelius’s D-minor String Quartet, begun in 1900 and completed in London in spring 1909, is a symphonic confession in miniature. It received its premiere at the Helsinki Institute of Music on 25 April 1910 with a quartet headed by Viktor Nováček, who had worked with Sibelius as the soloist in his Violin Concerto. The first movement opens with a call and response in a free Andante that accelerates with a unison crescendo to Allegro molto moderato, a flowing tempo that grows expansive, changes character, comes to a standstill and gains in intensity with each new start. In the Vivace a rhythmic turn of phrase from the opening movement is freshly developed, heard in new ways and interspersed with moments of silence. The emotional core of the work is the Adagio di molto, which takes its theme from a piano miniature of 1907, Adagio in E. Here this idea is developed into an almost orchestral texture of utmost expressive force. Three gentle intervening chords in E minor sound almost lost, as if from a different time. Speaking to a friend, Sibelius referred to them as secret keywords to his soul, as “voces intimae”. The scherzo that follows, Allegretto (ma pesante), casts gloom and despondence aside and paves the way for the finale, where acrid passages of unisono and nervous saltando bowstrokes are combined with a powerfully expressive tone and dance-like lilt to create an exhilarating Allegro. Leoš Janáček – String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata” Reading the works of Leo Tolstoy gave Leoš Janáček the composer’s itch. He made sketches for two operas – Anna Karenina (1907) and The Living Corpse (1916) – that were destined to remain unfinished. The plot of Tolstoy’s novella Kreutzer Sonata, in which a madman seated in a railway compartment recounts how he killed his wife because he could not bear to watch her play music with another man – inspired him to write a Piano Trio (1908-09, now lost) and his late First String Quartet. Here Janáček works like a film director with rapid cuts, building up tension and creating an atmosphere of anxious expectation. Exactly which scenes of the novella he is referring to is left to our imagination. The first movement jumps violently back and forth between Adagio (b-e-f#-e-d#-b) and Con moto. In the second movement, he embeds an elegant theme in suspiciously scurrying 32nd-notes and transforms iridescent tremolos into symbols of fear. The hesitant opening of the third movement is shot through with aggressive interpolations. He mournfully allows the opening melody of the first movement to return in the finale, only to strike out in a surprising direction: the madman’s narrative has lost its force; the hope of catharsis – of victory over the violence lurking in humankind – becomes a hymn to life in all its fullness, contradictions and irretrievability. The premiere, played by the Czech Quartet with the composer Josef Suk as second violinist, took place in the Prague Mozarteum on 17 October 1924. A repeat performance was given on 4 September 1925 during the ISCM Festival in Venice, where it was performed by the Zika Quartet, the same ensemble that had played Schulhoff’s First Quartet the previous day. Michael Herrschel Translation: J. Bradford Robinson

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