Leos Janacek's two String Quartets are remarkable achievements and an important part of the String Quartet repertoire. These Quartets are among a handful of late works that really solidified Janacek's
image of genius and status as that of an absolute master, one of the greatest Czech composers of all time, after and along with such composers as Dvorak and Smetana. There are many excellent recordings of the String Quartets out there (Hagen, Emerson, Prazak, Guarneri, Talich, Martinu Quartet and others...I especially wouldn't want to be without my copies of the Prazak and Hagen Quartets) and this Naxos disc with the Vlach Quartet is in my opinion a very good recording and I have played it many times over the years.
Janacek's String Quartet No.1 "Kreutzer Sonata", gets it's subtitle from Tolstoy's 1889 novella of the same name. In the story a woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage plays Beethoven's sonata with a dashing violinist, and seems carried away by the music's passion. Her husband, plagued by jealous fantasies, cuts short a business trip and comes home unexpectedly, well after midnight. He finds her together with the violinist in the dining room, fully clothed but involved in an intimate conversation. Convinced she has betrayed him, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage. Since Tolstoy narrates this tale through the husband's obsessive and bitter point of view, we never know for sure what has happened between the unnamed wife and her sonata partner.
Janacek was attracted by the novella's dramatic urgency and emotional extremes, and he succeeded in rendering its narrative arc in a compelling series of musical events. Janacek was a pan-Slavist who looked to the east rather than to Austro-German models for inspiration. In his string quartets, it is not easy to find traditional structures like the sonata form, variations or rondo – continual development might be an apt way to characterize his compositional procedure. The music seems to be in a state of turbulent flux. Frequent reiterations of propulsive rhythms generate tremendous intensity; his melodies have a speech-like, often declamatory quality, expressing pathos and ecstasy with equal fervor. His sonic palette is enormous; at climactic moments, the collective sound of the quartet far exceeds what one might have expected from four string instruments. This quartet, which was composed in only a week, Oct 30 – Nov. 7, 1923 was by no means Janacek’s only attempt to create a work inspired by Tolstoy’s story. Two lost works; three movements of a string quartet dating from 1880, and a Piano Trio dating from 1908 were also based on the story. It is said that some of the material from the lost Piano Trio was used in the String Quartet No.1.
Janacek's String Quartet No. 2 "Intimate Letters", is also full of extra-musical references, in this case of the most personal and passionate, indeed bordering on obsession. There are a series of passionate letters (around 973 of them!!) the 73-year-old composer wrote to a much younger married woman, Kamila Stösslová. She and her husband were friends of his. Kamila was apparently indifferent to his love for her, as well as towards the music that was solely inspired by her and Janacek's intense feelings and longing for her. Perhaps she was at least flattered, who knows. In a letter to Kamila written in October 1924, Janacek shed some light on his concern for women's rights and more importantly, on his First Quartet: "What I had in mind was the suffering of a woman, beaten and tortured to death, about whom the Russian author Tolstoy writes in his Kreutzer Sonata.") But in response to another letter, written after the Second Quartet was completed, in which Janacek confided that the third movement was a musical rendering of his wish that "she would bear a child of his", one can only imagine what she might have thought: a 1920s Czech equivalent of "tmi"/too much information" as people use frequently today. In any event Kamila Stösslová became the composer's muse, and despite her rejection Janacek's love for her seemed inextinguishable. I think all listeners will "feel" in the music to some degree a real sense of Janacek's overwhelming passion and love unrealized.
The Sonata for Violin and Piano and Pohadka for Cello and Piano are also two wonderfully crafted chamber works, both quite memorable and further display Janacek's entirely unique voice and the ahead-of-it's-time musical ideas that pour forth. Enjoy!