String Quartet in D minor, Op.56 (Voces intimae)
String Quartet No.1 in E minor (From My Life)
String Quartet No.2 in D minor
Dante String Quartet [Krysia Osostowicz & Giles Francis (violins), Judith Busbridge (viola) & Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello)]
Recorded 7-10 July 2010 in Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: June 2011
CD No: HYPERION CDA67845
Duration: 78 minutes
The decision to present these works together for the first time as a recording is a logical one, for here are two composers who turned to the medium of the string quartet in times of strife – in Smetana’s case, at the discovery of his loss of hearing, while for Sibelius it was an intense precursor to perhaps his darkest work, the Fourth Symphony.
That does not mean the music presented is unremittingly negative – far from it, for the Dante Quartet finds a measure of strong resolve in the music. The Sibelius receives the strongest possible advocacy, one of the most persuasive accounts you could wish to hear of what is a tricky piece to grasp. The first movement climaxes with a striking unison that cuts dramatically to the nervy activities of the second, which disappears like a breath of wind. The slow movement holds the heart of the piece, not worn on its sleeve in this interpretation, but probing and thoughtful in its insights. The finale begins with a strong sense of purpose, after which the long figurations of slurred notes from viola and second-violin create a sense of forward propulsion. The music gathers in an inexorable drive to the finish, the dialogue between the instruments incisive – yet Sibelius’s elusive harmonic writing prevents an emphatic finish.
Smetana’s First String Quartet is by far the most popular work here in terms of recorded history, an autobiographical account leading up to his loss of hearing. This performance of ‘From my Life’ has considerable heft in its opening passages, the cello full-toned in its underpinning of the first main tutti, but there is tenderness, too, reserved especially for the second theme. Much of the movement has cut and thrust, its energy conveying the impression of music pouring from the composer’s pen. The dance of the second movement is also incisive, its stop-start element just right, while the trio lilts a bit before the increasingly aggressive motifs from the scherzo take over again. All this is clearly pointed towards the fateful moment in the finale where the composer’s realisation of his deafness arrives, and here Krysia Osostowicz excels in the piercing high ‘E’. There is a sense of resolution after this, but, despite the beautiful pianissimo-playing, it is only partial.
The Second String Quartet of 1882-3 is comparatively rarely heard, and Gavin Plumley’s excellent booklet note helps place it in context as the result of the composer’s frustration with his lot. Again there is plenty of energy – to the point of being hyperactive – and the Dante Quartet deals well with the unusual structure, the lack of a true slow movement meaning there is barely a pause for breath as the work progresses. We thus find Smetana to be original and forward-looking in his ideas, but restless in his execution, especially in the third movement where the Dante musicians really dig in with a sense of reckless abandon. The finale is curious, too, a lot of its short duration spent building towards the conclusion, the players making sense of its bluster.
These are three extremely fine performances, complemented by excellent recording quality. As with most Hyperion releases, the cover art – in this case Hugo Simberg’s Spring Evening, Ice Break – reflects the music unerringly.