"Intimate Letters" letter perfect

Precise melodic movement is perhaps the best way to describe the Emerson String Quartet’s latest album “Intimate Letters” – two string quartets by Leoš Janácek and Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola by Bohuslav Martinů. Beyond being some of the most unique melodic music of the early 20th century, the performances by the Eugene Drucker, Philip Setzer, Lawrence Dutton and David Finckel make this new release an absolute joy from start to finish. The intricate, faultless ensemble playing yet again verifies the Emerson String Quartet as the premiere string quartet today.

The opening piece is Janácek’s String Quartet no. 1, written in 1923 (in just over two weeks). In the opening movement, there are numerous sections where the motivic motion of the piece is transferred from one instrument to another. While the tenor and placement of the instrument in the recording is different (allowing the clear identification of each of the four instruments), the technique by the performers is so similar the music seems to be coming from one performer and not an ensemble. The second movement opens with an even greater example of this seamless transfer between players. As the second movement becomes monophonic, the singular mindedness of the performers heightens the unified sound. I don’t believe you could get a more perfect production of the attack and decay of the notes through electronic media – they are just that good!

This first quartet by Janácek is based on the novella The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, which describes how a man murdered his wife for his infidelity with another (kindled while playing the “Kreutzer” sonata by Beethoven). In Tolstoy version there are heavy overtones, filled with darkness and despair. For Leoš Janácek, the quartet becomes more of a tragic love story. There are sinister moments, particularly in the third movement when the violins play short elements sul ponticello. However, the overall feeling is one of longing, as if the story was taken from the female’s point of view. According to the liner notes, this piece was written while Janácek was obsessed with Kamila Stösslová, to the point he dedicated his second string quartet to her, entitling it “Intimate Letters”.

The String Quartet no. 2 “Intimate Letters” (1928) by Leoš Janácek is the longer of the two quartets. It is filled with passion, intensity and tonal color. While there are plenty of moments of light solo or duet playing, as a general rule the quartet is dense sonically. There are rich sections of polyphony and polytonality. Some of the music sounds like the polyphony Stravinsky used in Petrushka (1910). There are also moments of rich harmony giving way to sections of rapid changes in tonal color, utilizing harmonics, pizzicato, sul ponticello and the full range of the instruments. Of the two quartets, the second is the more passionate of the two (if that’s possible). Perhaps the most remarkable difference is the sense of hope that pervades the music of the second quartet. In the end, a sense of anticipation of “what’s next” as if Janácek was perhaps hoping for a response to these love letters to Kamila.

Between the two string quartets, Philip Setzer on violin and Lawrence Dutton on viola play through Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola by Bohuslav Martinů. These are not like the madrigals of English composers of the late 16th century, but rather in the Italian style by the originators of madrigals. The music has a sense of freedom from structure and melodic development the 17th and 18th century imposed on music composition. While the piece was written in 1947, it captures the beauty of this older musical style.

The performance of the madrigals yet again highlights just how mentally in tune Philip and Lawrence are when playing together. There are times when they are moving together in perfect precision, and then other moments when they move the melody from one to the other (and back again) with textbook accuracy. The music is light and joyful, played as if the two performers were frolicking about the music on a sunny patio with hardly a care – and yet the music is so accurately played its intensity comes off as effortless. This is not easy music to perform and yet it succeeds in being incredibly easy to listen to.

This latest album by the Emerson String Quartet “Intimate Letters” available on Deutsche Grammophon is a perfect example of perfection in performance by a string quartet. It is a joy to listen to music so seldom performed. It is even more thrilling to hear just how well the quartet plays together. The melodies of these composers come through with crystal clarity, regardless which performer has the melodic line. With music as intense and harmonically rich as that of Janácek, Emerson String Quartet achieve a real feat of magic.

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