After two evenings of sonic excellence but a preponderance of “follow the theme,” it was perfect timing to have a program by the casalQuartett that brought the impact and importance of part-writing back into focus (cross-references below).
The concert began with an energetic—near frantic in sections of the opening “Allegro con brio”—performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95. The wonderfully balanced “Allegretto man non troppo” was an early highlight where cellist Andreas Fleck utilized his richly hued tone and marvellous sense of phrase to great effect in solo lines or setting the delectably spooky atmosphere of the transition to the “Allegro assai ma serioso.” Coincidentally, the dotted rhythms that infuse much of that movement had just hours earlier fuelled the dramatic engine for the Finale of Bruckner’s 8th Symphony; the quartet had similar passion but weren’t quite able to be as uniformly consistent in the delivery. In the Beethoven quartet’s last “Allegro,” the tempo exceeded the players’ grasp for clarity but, nonetheless, the music was driven home with much excitement in the air.
What fun to travel to Lucerne and hear a second performance of Dieter Ammann’s String Quartet No. 1 (the casalQuartett included it in their 2005 appearance at the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival—just two years after giving the première at the Boswiler Sommer festival).
This time around, the raw fun and edgy scratchiness was clearly in the foreground, delighting the attentive audience with every contortion. The slap-happy contributions from both Flecks (viola and cello) added a lot of zest that was contagious. Ammann’s irrepressible joy of discovery (“See what I can do!”) and the ensuing years’ of performances combined ideally, making it a treat to be in the room with the art and suddenly whetting the appetite for next week’s Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste.
Ammann’s second essay in the genre (2009) was at once denser and more dramatic. Frustratingly, the brief moment of cello lyricism set the table for a meal that never arrived. The somewhat grumpy peasant dance proved to be an excellent foil for the marvellously crafted journey to the farthest reaches of the E string, rendered with quiet aplomb by violinist Daria Zappa moments after some rare octaves needed a tad of adjustment to ring true. With such a mastery of what the strings can do (either work would make an exacting audition piece), one looks forward to more of what chamber music’s most homogeneous ensemble can say when the next work is born.
Unable to fully appreciate Marcus Fleck’s German introduction (largely readings from correspondence) here is what JWR has discovered along the way to Janáček’s String Quartet No. 1.
Top ten facts from a variety of sources:
- Bohemian Quartet, led by the famous violinist Joseph Suk, requested two quartets from the Janáček: both have programs: The Kreutzer Sonata and “Intimate Letters.”
- The first, using Tolstoy’s story as the “guiding principle” was completed in eight days in 1923; “Note after note fell smoldering from my pen,” wrote Janácek.
- “I had in mind a miserable woman, suffering, beaten, wretched, like the great Russian author Tolstoy wrote about in his Kreutzer Sonata,” said the Czech composer.
- The compositional language is original and extraordinary in the way he evokes passion, delirium, compassion, and everything in-between with his soundscape.
- In the second movement, the first violin portrays the seducer.
- Listen carefully, there’s an actual quotation from Beethoven in the third movement and hints of that in the second.
- This quartet was not Janácek’s first go at the Kreutzer Sonata: Two lost works; three movements of a string quartet dating from 1880, and a Piano Trio dating from 1908 were also based on the story.
- Dutch writer Margriet de Moor’s recent novel (2005), The Kreutzer Sonata follows a caustic Dutch music critic who, though blind, falls in love with a violinist during her performance of the fabled Beethoven work.
- Tolstoy’s story was initially banned in Russia; the author was described by Theodore Roosevelt as a “sexual moral pervert.” Janáček’s music was never banned.
- Tolstoy gradually evolved his motto from “Life is evil!” to “God is life” then, finally, “Life without faith is impossible.” Janáček’s wordless motto has to be gleaned from the score.
As to its performance, the Eros-related music allowed everyone to shine—notably violinist Rachel Späth who supported her colleagues on either side as the composer tried all manner of combinations to declaim the literal melodrama of the steamy romance. With violin I and cello flirting about the movements, it fell to the others to comment on the comings and goings—their gossipy chatter around the bridge was particularly effective.
Erwin Schuloff’s “Allegro giocoso alla Slovacca” from his String Quartet No. 1 made a fine encore with its rhythmic drive, scintillating harmonics and cellist unleashed! Here’s to a performance of the complete work on another occasion. JWR