Entangled in Janacek’s tragedies and love affairs

The Quatuor Zaïde is a promising French ensemble. © Jean-Pierre Domingue/NoMadMusic
The Quatuor Zaïde is a promising French ensemble. © Jean-Pierre Domingue/NoMadMusic

What a loss! On August 12, 1928 the Czech composer Leos Janacek died. And shortly before his death, he produced two of the works that I am tempted to label as the best he wrote. Who knows, what masterpieces Janacek would have composed, had he lived on! The Quartet for strings No. 2 was completed in 1928, five years after the Quartet for strings No. 1. We have met Janacek already as the composer of that beautiful piano cycle “On an overgrown path”, performed by the Luxembourg pianist Cathy Krier. Today I would like to present the French Quatuor Zaïde and it’s interpretation of the two mentioned chamber music works.

A muse called Kamila

The historic background is interesting: Janacek was a difficult, sometimes violent person and lived in an unhappy relationship with his wife Zdenka Janackova. In 1917, Janacek met the Stössel family, David Stössel being a dealer in antiques and Kamila being his wife. Janacek fell in love with Kamila Stösslova and the two started an exchange of letters lasting ten years. Some 700 letters from Janacek to Kamila Stösslova have been preserved. They document how far Janacek considered Kamila his new muse. Out of his pen flowed numerous works: song cycles, operas, symphonic works and his first string quartet in 1923. At the same time, his public recognition in the Czech Republic and abroad grew.

In 1927, Janacek took the relationship with Kamila to new level, staying several days with her. She increasingly accepted his love. The letter exchange grew more intensive, visits became more frequent and Janacek celebrated this by writing his second string quartet within a couple of weeks in February 1928. Six months later, after catching a cold during a walk, he died of pneumonia. Fate had struck.

Contrasts and interruptions

Quartet No. 1 is written in four movements and sounds very modern to anyone familiar with music from the 19th century and that geographical area, i.e. the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The first movement introduces two contrasting themes: a slow, plaintive melody, that forms a kind of canvas, and a short, sharp, nervous one pushing itself to the fore, played first by the cello, then by the violin and finally by the viola. What may sound like the expression of fear and/or pain is stopped abruptly and counterbalanced by a single pluck on the cello. Beautiful! Then the orchestra starts all over again, the two complementary themes are repeated, varied until at some point a totally different melody sets in, matching only in pitch and rhythm. So brilliant!

The second movement faints to introduce a new melody, but no, it is still the same two themes, they move on until a strident, fast paced tune, played first by the viola, then the violin, interrupts the whole movement. This happens twice. Daring. In the third movement, Janacek returns to the original themes, but the “nervous” melody is played by the viola and the violin in a much higher pitch, almost painful for the ear. Pizzicati – the plucking of strings – highlights the overexcited mood of the movement, that becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the slow plaintive melody. The final movement starts with a gentle melody, becomes faster, more pizzicati, even faster, climax and… nothing! Over and out. A musical tragedy comes to an abrupt end after 17 minutes of tension. Wow!

Portraying a Tolstoy character

Janacek dubbed the piece “Kreutzer Sonata” after a novel of the same name by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. His intention was to render the disarray and the emotional outbursts of an adulterous woman who plays the central part in Tolstoy’s novel. In the end, Janacek described nothing less than his own distress over a loveless marriage. There is no direct link between Janacek’s quartet and Beethoven’s original “Kreutzer Sonata”. Beethoven dedicated his sonata to Rodolphe Kreutzer, a top French violinist, and this piece of music inspired in turn Tolstoy to write a novel of the same title.

“Intimate Letters”

The second quartet has the title “Intimate Letters” and clearly refers to the letters Leos Janacek and Kamila Stösslova wrote each other. Just like in his first quartet, Janacek succeeds in reflecting in his music all the feelings expressed in those letters: a certain solemnity as the relationship between the composer and his muse had been “officialised” by 1928, the tenderness between the two lovers, anxiety about how long the joy will last, tension resulting from misunderstandings in letters and the delay between posting a letter and getting a reply – it’s all there, and it’s all exceptionally nice. Chapeau!

The recording of the two quartets by the Quatuor Zaïde has been produced by the French label NoMadMusic. And no, I have no secret deal with the label. I just like Janacek’s quartets and the artists, who have been nominated – just like Cathy Krier – Rising Stars by the European Concert Hall Organization (ECHO) for the concert season 2015/16. They will be in Luxembourg in five days. And with a little luck…

© Charles Thibo

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