BEDŘICH SMETANA – From My Life – SQ No. 1

Bedřich Smetana [1824-1884] was a Czech Romantic composer who wrote two string quartets. His most famous, and a staple of the repertoire is String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, titled From My Life. This work is in four movements.

The First Quartet opens on a firm chord and the ensemble immediately slip into a subtle rhythmic motif to accompany a strong Gypsy-like violin melody. This leads into a change in the tonality of the accompaniment, bringing a most passionate moment. Now the rhythmic motif subsides and the ensemble joins the violin with melodies of their own. The solo violin leads the section into a tempo, which is not sustained. This is virtuosic playing from the violin as it negotiates several harmonic changes. The violin mellows, whilst still remaining the position of dominant instrument. Now the passion rises to the surface again, although it’s nothing like the opening. A very subtle violin leads us to the end of the movement with three cello notes being the last heard.

The next movement marked allegro moderato a la polka has a folk-like Czech sound. Various melodies are introduced, including one by the viola, and the polka feeling is evident in its simple, dance-like rhythms. Now the music morphs into a folk-like waltz tempo, with simple harmonies. There is not really a melody, just rhythmic phrases from the violins. The music moves into an up-tempo section; this time the violins do play melodies. The tempo moderates then accelerates again, before dropping back to a very brief rubato section. The energy then returns for a brief period to take the movement out.

The third, and longest movement is in a largo tempo. A solo violin introduces a longing melody and the ensemble moves in behind it with some most attractive harmonies. The solo violin has disappeared into the background. It is gradually brought back to the foreground with changing harmonies allowing it to develop an ever so subtle melody. Now the violin introduces an intensity and the ensemble respond in kind; it’s quite tempestuous really. This turns out to be a short section and a new mood is established with the violin expressing over a cello pizzicato. A brief solo violin interlude leads into a slow, aching passage where the violin expresses a gentle, longing melody. The pizzicato cello resumes and it’s all very peaceful. The violin continues with minimal accompaniment and concludes with several sustained tones.

The finale opens in an energised fashion, as befitting its vivace tempo marking. The violins are both  dynamic, and combine with further folk-like melodies. This is a feature for the two violins as they negotiate various dance-like moods; however the dance feeling is a little negated by the very brisk tempo. Now we a have a section of quivering bows, together with the solo violin lamenting, as in the third movement. This brief interlude moves into a lilting passage with the violins expressing gentle melodies. A pause ensues and an extremely quiet violin leads to a conclusion.

Being such a popular work, there are many versions available. My review CD was a pairing with the Franck quartet, performed by the Juilliard Quartet. Also, I like the look of the Smetana’s two quartets paired with Sibelius’s Intimate Voices by the Dante Quartet, or perhaps String Quartet No. 1 with the two Janacek works, performed by the Jerusalem Quartet.

Again, there are several versions on Spotify and both of Smetana’s quartets are on YouTube. You can also find some video and further audio performances on earsense.

Listenability: A fine Romantic work.


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