New Classical Tracks: Passion, on 16 strings

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
August 18, 2009
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The subtexts of Leos Janacek's two string quartets include secret passion, and a tale of forbidden love and murder -- all this from a man in his 70s. The Emerson Quartet explores Janacek's soundscapes on its latest disc.

St. Paul, Minn. — Leos Janacek was an early 20th century Moravian composer who worked in obscurity for much of his life, but is now considered one of the great, distinctive voices in 20th century music.

He was over 50 when the great creative phase of his career began, and he wrote some of his most profound music in the last decade of his life, including two string quartets recorded recently by the Emerson String Quartet.

First violinist Eugene Drucker explains the impact Janacek had on this genre.

"I think of him in terms of his two string quartets, together with Bartok and Shostakovich, as the people who expanded the sonic language of the string quartet the most in the 20th century," said Drucker. "The people who were capable of making a string quartet sound larger than four string instruments playing together."

Drucker says the sheer emotional impact of Janacek's music is what moves the listener.

"I would say it's a soundscape of extremes -- certainly a soundscape of louds and softs, and unique, also extremes of register," said Drucker. "Very often he'll have the first violin absolutely in the stratosphere, and that first violinist might be doubled by the second violinist who's also playing pretty high up on the E string."

"There's a sense of great passion, and pushing things to emotional as well as sonic extremes," Drucker continued. "I think that all of the sonic -- almost excesses if you will -- are used to support the emotional intensity of these works."

Janacek steered away from the German and Austrian musical currents of the day, and instead turned toward Russia. He greatly admired Russian literature, and often used it as a launching pad for his music.

The first string quartet is called "The Kreutzer Sonata," and it's based on Tolstoy's novella of the same name. In the story, a husband describes how he murdered his wife after she had an affair with a musician. Passion overtook the woman and her lover as they were playing Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, which is how the string quartet earned its name.

Eugene Drucker explains how the story plays out in the music.

"The tone of this quartet becomes increasingly passionate and frenetic, and the fourth movement begins with some utterances in the violin," said Drucker. "The three lower instruments have a reminiscence with which the entire quartet began, and the opening motive of which I would say is full of yearning. But then the response in the violin is labeled with some Czech words that indicate like crying and weeping, and I think he's certainly taking the wife's point of view."

"When I play that movement, I try to get as close to sobbing as I can get," Drucker continued. "The movement becomes increasingly violent, so at some point near the end of the movement, when it reaches an absolute fever pitch of sounds and motoric rhythmic frenzy, I think that's where we're supposed to assume that she's been murdered by her husband."

Janacek's second string quartet reflects a passionate one-sided love story, involving letters the composer wrote to a young woman named Kamila Stosslova.

"He had become infatuated and obsessed with a much younger woman who was married to an antique dealer. His feelings ran away with him and he couldn't control himself," Drucker explained. "We're talking about a man well into his 70s, so for him to feel that kind of passion and to pursue it, at least by writing letters to her, is something you don't find that often in real life."

"The way that became the basis for this quartet, which is full of almost romantic, almost sexual passion quite a lot of the time -- that's remarkable, and I think that's the reason it has such an extreme soundscape," Drucker said.

Janacek wrote his second string quartet, which he titled "Intimate Letters," in just three weeks. In each movement he expresses deep, emotional feelings with the use of driving rhythms, and soaring passages that push the instruments to extremes.

According to Drucker, there is one point where we hear a quiet contrast.

"The third movement the composer wrote to Kamila, expresses his longing that she should have his child. It opens with gentle rocking rhythms, as a prelude to a passionate melody which interrupted with bursts of furious activity. There's almost a barcarolle feeling," said Drucker. "Perhaps he was even thinking of Venice and the boat songs. And then there are some accents off the beat which starts to rock the boat. It starts to create an unsettled feeling."

The burning desires and the fits of rage heard in the string quartets of Leos Janacek burst from the page in the hands of the Emerson String Quartet, who perform with virtuosic precision, and dramatic intensity.

Whether or not you know the stories behind these pieces, you'll appreciate the extreme sonic atmosphere and the sheer emotional punch offered by the Emerson String Quartet.

(This is a rebroadcast from May 26, 2009)

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