VITEZSLAV NOVAK – String Quartet No. 2

Czech composer Vitezslav Novak [1870-1949] wrote three string quartets. They are a little hard to find but they are out there. I shall be discussing String Quartet No. 2, which is in two long movements, and was composed in 1906.

This work begins with a fine solo introduction by the cello. The ensemble gently eases in and fashions a very peaceful mood. Violins wander freely, but there doesn’t seem to be much development. It’s very ambient for its time. All the while the piece is gaining texture as more interplay occurs. Although it’s not a fugue the feeling is quite fugue-like with interweaving of voices. A slight change brings a more optimistic mood, but the effect is very subtle. Suddenly, the intensity lifts and we have drama. This is sustained for several minutes before the mood changes again with a solo cello leading into a tempo; this section features attractive melodies. I’m now finding it to be quite static. Some drama returns, but it’s only transient; we are soon back into the ambient feeling. The ending is most pleasurable as the violins go high and gently fade.

The question to ask is – where did the last fourteen minutes go?

The second, longer movement, moves straight into a tempo. The violins are very busy and their energy drives the music forward. It’s a little folk-like in melodies that push hard. A pause allows the viola to express itself, with a measured ensemble backing. There is still a tempo, but nothing like the beginning. Now a folk-like passage ensues, with just two violins. The viola joins in the stabbing chords that accompany this measured jaunt. The tempo and feeling are set now and the violins constantly surge forward with new melodic phrases. They bring a sense of tension to the music.

There is a slight moderation here and more folk-like melodies come to the fore. Then some rhythmic punctuation takes place, leading to a period of a shimmering violins. A solo cello emerges out of this and the violins return, at a very measured pace. There seems to be a lot of folk music melodies as in the previous movement. Finally a longing is felt; the violins look inward as an undercurrent of viola and cello keep up the tempo, which has now dropped right back. The violins move way up into the high register momentarily, and then drift back into simple melodies which are sustained to a peaceful conclusion; the last notes being way up in a violin’s high register.

These two movements are very contrasting. The first quite static, the second, freewheeling.

My review CD is by the Kubin Quartet on the Centaur label, and is paired with a piano quintet, a genre that I don’t normally enjoy. However, this one is fabulous, there is a lot of string quartet in there. Several other versions of String Quartet No. 2 can be found on Amazon US and UK. I like the sound of one by the legendary Janacek Quartet, which is coupled with the two quartets of Janacek, at a very nice price. There is a bit of confusion when searching because there exists an ensemble, the Novak String Quartet, who have recorded quite a few CDs.

The review CD is on Spotify and the work can be found on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Filled with contrast, but ultimately an interesting Romantic work.


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