LEOS JANACEK – Intimate Letters – SQ No. 2

Leos Eugen Janacek [1854–1928) was a Czech Late Romantic composer who wrote two string quartets. I discussed  Janacek’s First Quartet, The Kreutzer Sonata, in July, 2016.

This work, Intimate Letters, has an interesting story. It is associated with passion as was his First Quartet; this time however, the passion was personal. In 1917 Janacek became infatuated with an antique dealer’s young wife; she was 32 years his junior. Janacek wrote over 700 letters to her, hence the title. Apparently the young woman was neither interested in the man nor his music. The work was completed during the last year of his life and Janacek threw everything into it. The music oscillates between energetic, emotionally charged passages to melancholy moments where the composer bares his soul and writes in the language of love. This fascinating piece has been recorded many times and performed even more. Janacek died just after it was completed and never heard it performed.

The Second Quartet opens with a tension which cuts back to being barely audible, before rising again. Another soft passage ensues. Now a melody breaks through, and continues for some time. A solo violin section tempers the music which follows, but eventually it builds into a passionate mood. Things are very melodically active and later, move into a slightly less intense phase, then back to an intensity. A brief pause brings in a solo violin with a feeling of melancholy. This solo violin is repeated, this time with an intense accompaniment, which is quite a contrast and is very effective. The end is a flourish.

The next movement, marked adagio goes straight into a slow violin melody; the ensemble drifts in to provide support. Again, there is a sense of melancholy. A recapitulation of the opening occurs. This is becoming a feature for the first violin as it blossoms into a virtuoso passage, with strong accompaniment. A soft section follows, leading to more virtuosity. Now the music becomes uncomfortable, with the violin searching for peace. This comes with a melancholy first violin offering up sparse melodies. Now a tempo is heard, at a moderate intensity, which rapidly increases. There is a short passage of a longing violin, with soft, abstract interjections before the violin strengthens to conclude.

The third movement commences with a gently harmonised violin melody; this is very reflective and the feeling persists for some time. A new melody appears, and the ensemble wraps around its joyless form. An alluring melody is heard briefly, before it is overwhelmed by the ensemble. There are strong rhythmic thrusts, leading to a hectic passage at a brisk tempo. A pause leads to more melancholia, featuring mostly solo violin. A short, dynamic flurry leads to a conclusion.

The finale is taken at a jaunty tempo which soon dissolves into a quiet passage. This is a very passionate, ambivalent moment as the intensity rises and falls, frequently and dramatically. A characteristic pause leads to a brief recapitulation of the movement opening. The first violin soldiers on with its melancholy nature, as the ensemble negotiates a way around it. A virtuosic section does not break the mood. Eventually we do have a change and further references to the opening. The work concludes with some striking violin trills and heavy chords.

I believe I can hear Janacek’s passion and frustration in this piece; for me it is slightly confused. This is a highly emotionally-charged quartet, and a magnificent work. 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’.

As Janacek’s two string quartets are some of the most popular in the repertoire, they are freely available. Amazon US has over a thousand recordings. Both quartets are on Spotify and the Second can be found here on YouTube. There is a video of a performance by the Arcadia Quartet, along with several other versions on earsense.

Listenability: Another blazing, passionate quartet from Janacek.


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