LEOS JANACEK – The Kreutzer Sonata – String Quartet No. 1

Czech composer Leos Janacek [1854-1828] wrote two brilliant string quartets. I have discussed the second, Intimate Letters (August, 2017), and here I shall discuss his first quartet, Kreutzer Sonata. This title was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Kreutzer Sonata, which was itself inspired by Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for Violin and Piano, No. 9, Opus 47.

It is of interest to be aware of the short story as I believe that it sheds light on the piece. A man, Pozdnyshev, and a woman, are happily married but after five children, the wife, who is a pianist, takes lessons from a music teacher, a violinist. They play the Kreutzer Sonata together. Pozdnyshev, in a jealous rage, goes away on a trip. When he returns early he finds his wife and the teacher together. Pozdnyshev then stabs his wife to death. You can hear feelings expressed in this quartet that relate to various parts of the story, which is obviously more complex than my four-line version of events! This story is a great read.

The first, fascinating movement, begins with a longing theme, played by the first violin, and answered by the three other players. It then moves into tempo and introduces another delightful theme, filled with passion. There follows a recapitulation of the first theme, this time much quicker. The violin takes over again before it leads into a quiet, busy passage. A recapitulation of the second theme brings the movement to a close. Words can’t do justice to this fine music.

The second movement introduction is a joyful, almost skittish passage. Then follows a rather more intense section. Janacek is a master at restating themes, in different contexts. The conclusion is a wonderful restatement of the first theme, with an awesome cello part.

The next movement again opens with a feeling of longing, almost desperation. The solo violin absolutely yearns with occasional interjections from the ensemble. In the next section the tension is palpable. Then follows a succession of more longing until it quietly concludes.

The final movement is a fine denouement. There is a long period of introspection before the music comes to life again. The composer reintroduces the opening theme from the first movement, this time in a chaotic manner. It moves into a gallop and then to a passive conclusion.

This is a highly emotionally-charged quartet, as is SQ No. 2 Intimate Letters. These are magnificent works. If this was all that Janacek had ever written, it would be enough. With what went on in his life, he would probably say ‘enough!’

String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2 are often paired on a single CD. In terms of availability of the pairing, there must be over 100 versions out there. I have it with the complete Bartok String Quartets by the Tokyo Quartet on RCA Red Seal. There are at least three versions on Spotify and many on YouTube. A fine Hagen Quartet performance of the Kreutzer Sonata can be found on earsense.

Listenability: One of the 50 CDs you should hear etc.


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