Quartet No.2 ‘Intimate Letters’

Composer: Leoš Janáček (b. 1854 - d. 1928)
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Composer: Leoš Janáček (b. 1854 - d. 1928)

Performance date: 08/07/2017

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1928

Duration: 00:26:45

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Behn Quartet (Kate Oswin, Alicia Berendse [violins], Lydia Abell [viola], Ghislaine McMullin [cello]) - [quartet]

His music is a
breathtakingly close confrontation between tenderness and brutality,
madness and peacefulness; it condenses the whole of life, with its
hell and its paradise.
Milan Kundera on

The Second Quartet invites us into the
intimacy of the seventy-year-old composer’s relationship with Kamila
Stösslova. He interrupted his work on From the House of the Dead
for three weeks to write this erotic celebration of love. It is a
daring work in many ways, not least in his experiments with different
timbre, particularly with tremolo and sul ponticello. He
replaces strict formal models with a structure of momentum and
suspension; traditional development is taken over by swirling
juxtapositions of themes representing dramatically contrasted moods.
Also he frequently resorts to popular dance elements to make his

The music bursts into flames from the
first bar, a passionate theme, which will recur throughout the four
movements. My feelings when I saw you for the first time, wrote
Janá?ek to Kamila. The first eight bars give way to a viola solo
played sul ponticello; Janá?ek had for a time been obsessed
with replacing the viola with a viola d’amore, seemingly attracted by
the name of the instrument as much as its sound. The sul
effect was his superb solution and quartet violists
have been saved from the ignominy of being replaced by a baroque

Today I set to music my tenderest
desire. I fought with it. It prevailed. It was like a birth. What
would the destiny of this son have been – simply as we are, passing
from tears to laughter?
The viola opens the extraordinary second
movement with a gentle lullaby theme, which slowly expands into music
of extreme exaltation. This is eventually interrupted by a few short
scales descending flautato, which usher in a presto with a
popular dance theme, before bringing back the viola theme from the
first movement. The flautato scales are then used again to
signal the reappearance of these various ideas before the movement
ends suddenly.

Today I wrote the number where the
earth trembles. It will be the best.
The third movement begins
with a swaying barcarole. The central adagio section shifts to
mysterious harmonies played very softly; a magnificent contrast
occurs when the same music returns fortissimo, played by the violin
at full stretch, and transfigured by a C major chord. The barcarole
is brought back at several different tempos and there is a reminder
of the mysterious central adagio before the movement ends suddenly
with three cries. The last movement follows immediately, a rondo with
a spirited dance refrain. The first episode again recalls the work’s
opening theme in four trilled notes. The second episode is played
andante, and again calls up the four-note theme, furioso sul
The momentum is built up before an abrupt close.

Francis Humphrys