JANÁČEK; SMETANA String Quartets
It’s never an easy ask, playing Janáček’s string quartets. Then playing them well. Then playing them this well. But the Takács Quartet, being the Takács Quartet, have made it harder for themselves than that, by including Smetana’s First String Quartet as a bonus. Coming so soon after the Pavel Haas Quartet’s benchmark reading of the Smetana (a 2015 Gramophone Award-winner), this is an unfortunately timed release.
But it is a significant one nonetheless, if only because Janáček is clearly the main attraction. It certainly brings out the best in the Takács, who expertly negotiate the music’s paradoxical demands. On the one hand, there’s the illusion of wild, rasping abandon, a willingness to embrace the rough-grained sound world without inhibition. On the other, not a note seems to be out of place. The musicians handle the harsh gear-shifts with flawless rhythmic control, most obviously in the lurching third movement of the First Quartet. It is chiefly their emotional agility, however, that makes this disc so compelling, placing the emphasis where it should be: on the works’ underlying narratives.
What keeps us gripped, in this Kreutzer Sonata, is not just the stranglehold of a jealous husband’s rage but also the sense of sobbing despair – an element underplayed in too many interpretations. Listen to first violinist Edward Dusinberre at the opening of the fourth movement; neither the Pavel Haas nor Talich quartets simulate tears so convincingly. Meanwhile, Intimate Letters gives us far more than a list of tender confessions, namely a reminder of just how violent the Takács can sound. Occasionally I was left wanting even more. The scream of pain at 2'45" into the third movement of Intimate Letters, for example, doesn’t quite lacerate like the Talich’s. Still, in terms of sheer drive, this Janáček competes with the finest.
You’d be hard-pressed to say the same of the Smetana. From the outset, where viola player Geraldine Walther plunges into her solo, this reading never reaches the temperatures of the Pavel Haas Quartet. Not that there isn’t plenty to admire. The Takács fully reflect the work’s autobiographical nature, indulging its moments of poignant introspection. But it’s in the sun-soaked charm of the second movement and the exuberant opening to the fourth that they reveal themselves at their hot headed best.