The first of Josef Suk’s two mature quartets, in B flat, Op. 11, was partly written in Helsinki and Vienna hotels early in 1896, the last two movements being composed at home in Prague. The work, which positively breathes romanticism, inevitably shows the influence of his beloved teacher and future father-in-law Antonín Dvořák.
By 1916, when he belatedly met Leoš Janáček, Suk was one of the inner circle of Czech music. Janácek, by contrast, though 20 years older, was a provincial outsider from Brno who was about to score his first big success with the Prague première of Jenůfa. Suk knew about Janáček from Dvořák but had not heard any of his music. Attending a Jenůfa rehearsal, he was bowled over by the recruiting scene and, finding himself sitting next to the Moravian composer, complimented him.
‘Inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata’, the First Quartet is in Janáček’s mature style, which involves the repetition, variation and distortion, in an almost filmic way, of often brief motifs, heavily influenced by folk melodies and speech rhythms The outline of a classical quartet can be discerned in Janáček’s four movements and there is no program as such, although the discourse is influenced by Tolstoy’s tale of marital jealousy and murder. We see the story from the wronged wife’s point of view – Janáček clearly saw no irony in the contrast between his sympathy for this ‘poor woman, tormented, beaten, battered to death’ and the heroines of his operas, and the way he treated his own wife!
From 1917 Janáček was obsessed with a married woman, Kamila Stösslová, the muse behind the great works of his final decade – virtually all the music for which we now remember him. On 29 January 1928 he began work on a string quartet which would sum up his feelings for her. He called it Love Letters and wrote the alto part for a viola d’amore – out of an obsession with the instrument’s name rather than its sound. (He agreed substituted it with a normal viola.) He was able to hear a complete run-through on 27 June but on 12 August he died of pneumonia. The quartet, which the Moravian Quartet premièred on 11 September at the Brno Exhibition of Contemporary Culture, was thus his last major work. It was published only in 1938, without the composer’s intended dedication to Kamila – in an introduction to the 1988 edition, her name was at least mentioned. Like the First Quartet, Intimate Letters was established in the repertoire through the myriad performances and broadcasts given worldwide by the Smetana Quartet.
a most welcome addition to the catalogue” (Suk) Gramophone
“performances of sustained eloquence and accomplishment” (Janacek) Gramophone
“I find [the Gabrieli String Quartet’s] readings impressive. They have authority and imagination and they are as faithful to the score as I can judge … I admire the way they succeed in sustaining magic without inflating the rhetoric and over-emphasizing the bizarre. They succeed, too, in maintaining beautiful sound” (Janacek) Gramophone