Czech Early Modern composer Josef Suk [1874–1935] wrote two string quartets and several incidental pieces in the genre. Suk studied under Dvořák, whose daughter he married. The First Quartet shows an obvious debt to that composer, but I believe the Second, from 1911, does not. It is a sprawling work with three adagio movements, which for me, evoke great moments of romantic love.
The work commences with one of those adagio movements and the opening says a lot about his style. The ensemble play three rich, slow chords and the first violin then contributes a slight phrase. This is repeated twice, each time the chords are deeper and more resonant. On the third iteration the chords continue to build and make for a gorgeous harmonic carpet over which first one violin, then two, express lyrically. No adagio here. A violin hints at some energy, and eventually this comes to fruition, bringing on a fairly frantic passage. Just as the violins approach the rhapsodic, the music turns minimal and the violins float for a time. Then follows an absolutely wonderful violin duet, at first lyrical, then with a tempo, which leads to the entrance of the ensemble.
A pause evokes the opening texture, with different notes. Now the intensity slowly builds and there is definitely a sense of post-Dvořákian melodies that sound quite of their time. Some of these sounds are passionate enough to have been written by Leoš Janáček in his most tortured periods, details of which can be found elsewhere on this blog. A return to some optimism has the violins leading the ensemble through a slightly dramatic passage. Harmonies ascend and the violins respond to the changes with more of an edge to their attack. The cello is very powerful here. Nearing the end the texture is sparse and very intimate, with the feeling almost picturesque, as the movement dissipates.
The next movement again opens with a series of slow chords which are most evocative. The pure sound of four harmonised strings brings a feeling of awe. After a time, a violin breaks free but the chords remain strong. The violin is very precious, as is the mood. A touch of a dance-like moment is heard and the chords turn to rhythm before another slow, chordal passage is heard – the violins positively weep in this section. A period of pizzicato follows but the music is slightly rigid as the cello produces a strong statement. A return to the opening sound is welcome as the violins rise above the chordal harmonies, producing the sweetest of sounds. A pause leads to further rhythmic conversations which end on a series of graceful phrases.
The third movement is again an adagio, although slightly quicker than the first two. Chordal harmonies dominate this time, with the first violin being scarcely audible. A great peace ensues, with the first violin merely a whisper above the gentle harmonies. A cello motif develops, lifting the spirits and the violins become quite passionate. A drop in dynamics doesn’t lead to a decrease in tension as the violins clash repeatedly before the tempo is resumed. The cello part here is wonderful as it spars with the violins. The movement comes to a head with a rich passage, supported by all instruments, before falling away into another moment of sparsity.
There is no pause before the final movement, and little change in the mood. A sense of busyness is at work here. Eventually there is a little passion and for me, the music takes on a sense of 1911 abstraction. The ensemble drifts, with occasional rhythmic thrusts before it completely breaks free and the instruments settle into the sparsest of moods, giving the ending an atmosphere all of its own. The conclusion is slightly perfunctory.
I feel there is something missing in this work. It may have to do with the form, three consecutive adagio movements which seem out of balance, although they are individually magnificent. Possibly it drifts, often without clear resolution. As noted, it sounds nothing like Dvořák, and perhaps the modernism going around at this time had some effect on the unusual structure of the piece.
The review 2-CD set, Complete Works for String Quartet, performed by the Minguet Quartet is on the CPO label. It also contains String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat major and the complete suite of incidental pieces, together with a piano quintet.
This set is available on Amazon US and UK. The quartet can also be had on a single CD, sometimes paired with No. 1. Strangely most of these recordings are available only as downloads on Amazon US.
Listenability: Evocative if somewhat mysterious Early Modern quartet.