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Reviews: Janacek: Complete String Quartets - Mandelring Quartett

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Site review by Polly Nomial February 7, 2011
Performance:   Sonics:  
Yet another magnificent disc from this wonderful ensemble.

After a Shostakovich cycle, 3 discs of Schubert, the Schumann piano quartet & quintet, this repertoire marks very different territory for the Mandelring Quartet. This Janacek is arguably that of his most personal music and is heartfelt with emotional intensity dripping from every note in a way that had not been heard since the late Beethoven quartets. Whilst a disc of these two works would be short measure on their own, the "filler" is actually none other than the 'original' (pre-rehearsal) version of the second quartet in which a viola d'amore replaces the viola - apparently the first viola player wasn't up to the task, so it had to be re-written. Gunter Teuffel, together with the former violist of the Smetana Quartet, has painstakingly and lovingly worked backwards to re-establish the work as near to the original as can be conceived today - he also performs the part for us on this disc.

Opening with the "Kreutzer Sonata", the playing is simply so good that it defies description - certainly one coming to the quartet new wouldn't be at all surprised for it to have been subtitled "concerto for quartet without orchestra" (or similar)! From the intensely reflective slower moments to the exhilarating quicksilver flashes of brilliance, the Mandelring Quartet once again prove masters of their art. Performing the conventionally heard viola version of the second quartet "Intimate letters" first, the tone and performing style shares much of that with the "Kreutzer Sonata".

The viola d'amore version immediately sounds different (not radically) but the extra harmonic resonances - sample the ringing occurring at the end of the first movement - that this instrument gives out brings a softness to Teuffel's sound that the remaining members of the Mandelring Quartet rightly respond to in sensitive fashion. There is very little difference in terms of the tempo choices, or indeed the phrasing and overall style. Just that there is a rounder sound (even when playing sul ponticello; on the bridge) which adds the slightest hint of sepia to the tone, with a warmer relationship to the ear. As in the first quartet, the levels of ecstasy or hysteria of Janacek's score is delivered with quite frightening intensity by the Mandelring's (and Teuffel).

Fortunately, the sound matches the accomplishment of the playing and is quite wonderfully lifelike.

With excellent notes, this has to be one of the best quartet releases of recent years - very highly and enthusiastically recommended.

Copyright © 2011 John Broggio and

Review by Beagle January 4, 2011 (8 of 8 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
[this began as a reply to jdaniel in the Discussion thread, who asked...]

"Do they have the courage to be coarse when Janacek asks for it as well? My benchmark is Juilliard on Sony."

Yes indeedy! I believe you refer to that quality which the wife and I fondly refer to as 'edge', and horsehair-and-rosin edge is certainly present in satisfactory quantity where passion demands an emotional cadenza.

But a reassuring word to the faint-hearted who've had enough edge already today, and just want a dose of beauty in the evening: there is mostly 'tenderness' on this disc, both from Janácek's pen and the Mandelrings' bows. Although Tolstoy's novella, 'Krejcerova sonata', culminates in the narrator's confession to the brutal murder of his wife (falsely suspected of adultery), Janácek wasn't telling Tolstoy's story at all. He was just using its title to (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) suggest to a certain married woman named Kamila, that she OUGHT to consider the possibility of adultery with... guess-who. So bloody shrieks are neither called-for here, nor recorded on this disc. This first quartet always suffered on CD, with the highest notes of the violins reduced by 'aliasing' to fingers-on-chalkboard noise. Janácek was on his knees, pleading for a little you-know-what, not screaming.

Five years later at the age of 74, in his second quartet 'Listy duverne'* Janácek is still lusting after the impossible Kamila, but with more tenderness and less chest-beating. It would be unfair to call his wooing unsuccessful; it seems to achieve some sort of consummation in this remarkably lyrical music. Janácek originally wished that lyricism to be enhanced by viola d'amore** for the third voice; he was only dissuaded when his violist couldn't play the darn thing -- and Janácek out in the audience couldn't hear it. Eighty-some years later, Günter Teufel DOES play it and you CAN hear it on tracks 9-12 on this disc. The d'amore version has been reconstructed from Janácek's original score -- and it is notably different from the later viola version: surprisingly, the opening bars are played pizzicato by the other strings before the viola d'amore makes its aetherial entry. Ironically, it is the standard viola on track 5 which is almost inaudible -- a musicians' joke?

I don't have the Juilliard recording you mention, just a 1963 Janácek-Quartett, 1988 Hagen-Quartett and 1991 Lindsays CD, plus I have had the privilege of hearing this piece performed live (and well) twice in the last decade. This disc is easily the most satisfying recording thanks to SACD technology's string-friendly resolution -- but mostly because the Mandelrings have excelled themselves. It's safe to say that this is the Mandelring Quartet's most passionate performance on SACD (the Shostakovich cycle is a bit too pedantic for my taste).

I can't think of a reason to withhold a single half-star from either performance or sound, so...
*'intimate letters', but originally 'love letters'.
**more of a play on words than a practical notion.

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