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Three Degrees of Separation

New York
Weill Recital Hall
11/08/2002 -  
Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet Op. 20, No. 6
Leos Janacek: Quartet No. 1
Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet Op. 59, No. 1

Prazak Quartet
Vaclav Remes and Vlastimil Holek (violins)
Josef Kluson (viola)
Michal Kanka (cello)

The children of human beings should not be brought up as if they were animals; and we should set up as the object and strive to maintain as the result of our labors something better and nobler than a well-dressed body.

Leo Tolstoy, Lesson of The Kreutzer Sonata

At first glance, one would think that Leos Janacek’s string quartet known as “The Kreutzer Sonata” was an homage to Beethoven, but in actuality it was inspired by the Tolstoy short story of the same name. Curiously, the musical work, a convoluted rumination on music that depicts the effect of music on chastity and the ultimately lustful state of Christian marriage, is the twin of this inventive composer’s other quartet, “Intimate Letters”, a white-hot statement of May-December passions. As a “play within a play”, Janacek’s particular Kreutzer proudly takes its place with other twentieth century aesthetic labyrinths such as Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”, Schoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinema Scene, Escher’s self portraits, Bergman’s Persona or Shostakovich’s Symphony # 15. There is considerable controversy as to the meaning of the outbursts that consistently interrupt the quartet’s lyrical flow, most notably a disparity of opinion about the ending: is it Wagnerian redemption, Tolstoy’s atavistic brutality, or a resurrection without the requisite death?

The fine Prazak Quartet weighs in heavily on the gentler side. From the literary point of view, their delicate protestations may seem inadequate, but, from the musical, they are beautiful enhancements of, rather than impediments to, the organic melodic nature of the piece. It is hard to quarrel with such luxurious music making and, at least for this evening, it was enjoyable to put hermeneutic arguments up on a high and inaccessible shelf. The Czech group has been around for thirty years now and has achieved a high degree of professionalism, depth of sonority and unison of tone. The experience is much the heavier of a sound than their brothers the Panocha produce, but robustly expressive and deeply good humored.

The earthy qualities of the first Razumovsky were explored to the full in this stunning rendition. Not only did the group capture the Teutonic adaptation of the Slavic élan, but it also framed a profound third movement with just the right lightness of being. That adagio was breathtaking: built on such a solid and yet fragile foundation as to rival the best work of the Budapest versions of the 1940’s. Friends tell me that Prague is today the most musical city on the planet. The evidence from this side of the pond is overwhelmingly in support of this thesis.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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