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Implication of the Dance

New York
Weill Recital Hall
02/22/2002 -  
Erwin Schulhoff: Quartet # 1
Leos Janacek: Quartet # 2
Franz Schubert: Quartet D810

Talich Quartet
Jan Talich and Petr Macecek (violins)
Vladimir Bukac (viola)
Petr Prause (cello)

“I don’t deliver my feelings to the tender mercies of fools.”

Leos Janacek to Kamila Stoesslova, February 20, 1928

The String Quartet #2 of Janacek has acquired an extra-musical life in recent years. Now a favorite subject for social historians and psychologists, it often appears in programs wherein the management has assumed that an entire evening of “just” music will not be enough to hold an audience’s attention. Thus this passionate ode written by a man of 74 to his 36 year old object of desire (although he met her when she was 25) is combined with readings of the actual epistles or even becomes fodder for thespian presentations, including one recently enacted in New York where the hero looked and behaved a lot more like Mark Twain than the Moravian composer. Apparently, Janacek’s subterfuge in changing the name of the piece from “Love Letters” to “Intimate Letters” (the impetus for the missive quoted above) was not enough to quench the public’s interest in its subtext.

Kamila was indeed an exotic beauty, Jewish, dark, with a hint of the Gypsy. The composer of this white-hot music takes only seconds to introduce her in the viola, employing a thoroughly recognizable Romany scale. The exoticism of the work as a whole owes its spicy flavor to the flutterings of the septuagenarian’s heart at a time when he was obsessed with thoughts of aging (the piece was composed during the period which saw the Prague premiere of The Makropoulos Case, an opera about a woman who is over 300 and still dangerously attractive, only one week after Janacek’s decision to change the name of the quartet). As a statement of yearning, it rivals the steamiest efforts of Franck or Wagner.

The Czechs and Hungarians own this piece. The Takacs Quartet, now minus their namesake, will be presenting it soon with (lord save us!) a poetry reading at Lincoln Center. There may no longer be a Takacs in the Takacs Quartet, but there is still one Talich in the Talich Quartet (the elder recently bowing out) and they brought this music of their countryman as the centerpiece of their recital at Weill Hall last evening. The program began with the obscure but satisfying music of another Czech, Erwin Schulhoff.

Schulhoff was a contemporary of Kamila, tonight’s work premiering at the same ISCM festival in Venice as the ”Kreutzer Sonata” quartet of Janacek, forty years his senior. The piece reminds of Bartok, although surprisingly not the Bartok of the quartets, rather more it is a compendium of village vignettes, on the order of the Hungarian Pictures. This member of the urban, cosmopolitan community takes a nostalgic look at the happy Bohemians with generous portions of the czardas and just enough flutter-tonguing to keep his “friend of the 2nd Viennese School” card current. After espousing Communism, Schulhoff died in the camps (ironically, his naturalized Soviet citizenship kept him from being arrested in Prague by the Nazis until Russia fell) and he joins a distinguished set of Czech composers whose martyrdom has led to at least a modicum of interest in their music in present-day Europe. The Talich certainly infused as much life as possible into this interesting piece of nostalgia.

Where Schulhoff writes an entire dance, Janacek merely suggests one. Brief snippets of color flit across the synaptic space in this amazing work of genius, the memories and enlivening impulses leading the existence of the Mayfly. This is the dance in thought only, a final, controlled burst of passion made all the more intense by its transitory nature. From its very first hesitant phrases, this quartet explores the complex world of the physical, visceral effects of nostalgia and its individual, disjointed utterances are loaded with emotional freight. The last movement is a masterpiece of the miniature, touches such as the strumming of the second violin or the childhood taunts in the first (cf. Schoenberg’s Vergangenes) establishing the world of the mature mind at free play. I have heard many performances of this unique essay, including several by other Czech quartets, but this was the finest by far. Not only is the sound of the Talich extremely impressive, glorious and exceedingly expansive, but their pinpoint accuracy and supreme confidence made this an experience to be treasured. Often the passions of this paean lead its performers to degenerate into sloppiness, a technique that can seem, under these extreme emotional circumstances, to be not only excusable but somehow fitting. It takes a masterful performance such as this, one in which the passion is more intensely controlled, more emblematic of a December to May romance, to remind one that to achieve the highest level of heart to heart communication, one must not leave the head behind. Here you have the other side of the Czech dichotomy: the Slavonic pantheist speaking more eloquently than the Germanic deist. The interplay of these four exceptional musicians was thrilling to experience: this was that very rare combination of flawless technique and perfect interpretation.

A terribly intrusive industrial noise permeated the hall throughout the second half of the program, distracting patrons and musicians alike. It appeared to be generated by the heating or air conditioning systems and colored the performance of the Schubert beyond the point of honest evaluation, although it certainly seemed that the Talich approach is a deeply dramatic one. The musicians valiantly chugged on, stopping to discuss their options between the second and third movements and deciding to not only invest the remainder of the piece with their undivided attention, but to perform two fabulously executed encores as well: the slow movement of the 15th quartet of Beethoven and that quintessential piece of Czech music, the finale of Dvorak’s ”American”.

When Milos Forman decided to film “Amadeus”, he chose Prague as its setting, not because Don Giovanni was premiered there, but rather for the practical reason that it was the only city architecturally suitable where one could pan 360 degrees and not encounter any television antennae. Tradition is revered there and this fine group is a living, breathing, evolving organism, the bow now having been passed from Talich senior to junior (and, of course, inspired by the memory of that most revered Prague conductor Vaclav Talich, the great uncle of the current first-chair player). It is extremely comforting to realize that this type of professionalism and dedication is alive and well on the banks of the Vltava.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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