Begun in October 1876, Smetana’s E minor Quartet, ‘From My Life’, was completed by the end of the year; its first reception was lukewarm, being considered too advanced, musically and technically, and too ‘orchestral’. It certainly presented the viola in a fresh light: never had this instrument been elevated to such eminence in a piece of chamber music, or carried such a weight of utterance. But it soon entered the repertory, and after World War II the Smetana Quartet gave thousands of performances all round the world.
The D minor Quartet, written at the request of Ludevít Procházka, was composed from midsummer 1882 to 12 March 1883. Against medical advice, Smetana worked secretly on it; but apart from his deafness he suffered terrible pain, memory loss and blood rushing to his head. Contemporaries thought the quartet showed the deterioration of his faculties which led to his appalling end in a lunatic asylum on 12 May 1884; but Arnold Schoenberg pointed out what a forward-looking work it was. Smetana was present when it was played at Srb-Debrnov’s home but was too ill to attend the premiere, given at an Arts Club evening on 3 January 1884 by Lachner, J. Rauscher, Krehan and Neruda. From 1945 the members of the Smetana Quartet, who played both the E minor and the D minor at their initial concert, made it one of their missions to establish the latter in the repertoire.
The performances are given by a British group, the Gabrieli String Quartet, which was founded in 1966 and won its greatest reputation in its first 20 years, when it was led by Kenneth Sillito. Violist Ian Jewel and cellist Keith Harvey were also founder members but Irish violinist Brendan O’Reilly joined in 1969. For many years the quartet, which toured worldwide and premièred works by William Alwyn, Benjamin Britten, Gordon Crosse, Alan Bush, Daniel Jones, Nicholas Maw, John McCabe and Andrzej Panufnik, was resident at Essex University. Their recording of the Second Quartet receives its first release on CD.
“[the sound] is well integrated and reproduces with a natural presence” Gramophone
“resonant and spacious … the beautifully recorded Decca is the one to have” Gramophone