Review by Beagle May 6, 2007 (6 of 7 found this review helpful)
|[Note: I reverse here my usual order of sound / performance / music, for reasons which will become clear.]
My mind habitually lumps Smetana with Janácek, even though Bedrich was born a generation and a half before Leos (and a decade before Brahms!). Nonetheless I will continue to pair these two Czechs and their quartets for more than nationalist reasons: both are best-seller ‘novelists’. Smetana was obviously ahead of his time and no doubt created a precedent for Janácek when he invented what I call the musical novel* for string quartet.
Quartet no. 1 subscripted “Z mého zivota” (“With my life”) is a rather modern tell-all autobiography written eight years before he died at the tender age of sixty**. It begins with a shriek as if Bedrich had just suffered a heart attack and like a drowning man, his life flashed before his eyes: First there is the inevitable early struggle to get on in the world, then a happy time of young women who do not hesitate to ‘dance the Polka’, then the first hints of Beethoven-like deafness (portrayed by a ciphering high E). Nonetheless the finish is rather hopeful.
Quartet no. 2 was written ‘against doctor’s orders’ just before Smetana entered an asylum for the terminally siphilitic, and died. In his own words, the first movement is “depression and chaos following deafness”. But again as in the first quartet, Bedrich counters the gaping abyss with beauty and will-to-live.
The synopses above are all too brief, but perhaps you will intuit why I place these works in the inner circle of all quartets ever: powerful emotions conveyed to us by powerful music. The repertoire of SACD is incomplete without these works (and Janáceks).
I note that the critical opening chord*** of Smetana’s ‘From My Life’ can be interpreted as a hammer-blow (Lindsay/ASV), cry of angst (Talich/Collins) or deep sigh (Smetanovo/Denon). The interpretation of Smetanovo is similar to that of the Talich, emotional but well behaved – the Lindsays are gut-wrenchingly manic/depressive. In tempi, the Smetanovo are the slowest drivers on the road, but the music does pick up and dance the Polka at times. The emotions are there, but you won’t need a hanky to wipe your eyes.
It was interesting to cue up this SACD reissue against its CD original, since any audible difference is presumably the technology. The original PCM disc has been described by others as ‘dry’ and I agree: lots of treble but thin bass. What happens when this is subjected to the intensity of SACD? The new technology enriches the treble with fine detail but the bass is still attenuated. Tellingly, I had to reduce the volume from my initial setting because the highs occasionally inflicted pain on the hearing. Nonetheless, the SACD version is a (modest) improvement on the CD.
In summary, this disc is worth acquiring for the music’s sake. It’s a pity it is so expensive to acquire, and one can only hope that other high-fidelity versions will appear during my lifetime (cf four versions already of ‘Ma Vlast’). Dear Lindsays: PLEASE do Smetana and Janácek on SACD!
* Not to be confused with ‘noveletten’: musical novelties; I mean novel as in ‘Wuthering Heights’ or ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’.
** My present age!
*** It seems that the most important notes in a quartet are the first ones. In their book with Davin Blum, the Guarneri Quartet speak at length about the opening notes of Beethoven Op. 131.
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