Amatory love is the subtext of the first and last works on this imaginatively planned European programme, the ‘intimate letters’ of the disc’s title applying literally to Janáček’s ragingly emotive Second Quartet and by inference to Bartók’s calmer-centred First, which incorporates a theme associated with Stefi Geyer, a noted violinist whose charms had captivated the composer to the point of obsession. Midway between these two remarkable works comes a sequence of entertaining quartet miniatures by the gifted Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff, who died of tuberculosis in a Bavarian concentration camp in 1942. As I suggested when reviewing a recent rival recording by the Alma Quartet (Gutman, 3/16), Schulhoff’s Five Pieces, which date from 1923, reflect the local musical manners of Vienna, Italy, the Czech Republic and Argentina – the warmly seductive Alla Tango milonga fourth movement being especially appealing.
The first thing to say about the Quatuor Voce’s playing is that it does indeed accentuate the music’s intimate side: Bartók’s Lento first movement is, at its opening, so hushed you dare not breathe, although, as the music rises in temperature (which it does soon enough), the players up the intensity level significantly. The Allegretto second movement has an engaging mobility about it, with salient themes thoughtfully brought into prominence within the context of the whole: no idea is allowed to hog the limelight unduly. Certainly the recording, which is superb in all respects and presents an extremely realistic sound frame, helps focus the effect. Maybe the Alma Quartet sound marginally more gemütlich in the Viennese-flavoured first piece from Schulhoff’s set of five, and their take in the Alla Serenata ups the tempo in comparison with Quatuor Voce, but both performances work well.
Janáček’s Second Quartet comes off best of all, with the composer’s eerie use of sul ponticello (even within the first minute) proving especially effective. Still, once Janáček sets off con moto and asks for a more natural mode of playing, Quatuor Voce are fastidious over observing markings such as fortissimo, mezzo-forte, espressivo and so on. The wonderful Moderato third movement, a cradling lament, is played with affecting simplicity and the finale’s furiously scrubbing onslaughts (at, say, 5'08") are high in shock value. Given the unusual programming context, comparisons are somewhat irrelevant; but, as a well-performed overview of that was happening quartet-wise during a specific 20 year stretch of the first half of the last century, you could hardly do better.