SPARS Code: A-D
Number of Discs: 7 CD box set
Format: APE (image+cue)
Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Size: 1.71 GB
CD 01: Mozart: String Quartet K.387 / Haydn: String Quartet Op.33 No.3
CD 02: Haydn: String Quartets Op.33 No.2 / Op.3 No.5 Op.76 No.2
CD 03: Mendelssohn: Octet Op.20 With Smetana Quartet / Beethoven : String Quartet Op.59 No.2
CD 04: Brahms: Piano Quintet Op.34 / Dvorak: Piano Quartet Op.81 With Eva Bernathova, Piano
CD 05: Dvorak: String Quartets Opp.34 & 96
CD 06: Dvorak: String Quartets Opp.51 No.105
CD 07: Smetana: String Quartet No.1 / Janacek: String Quartet No.2
Back in “Iron Curtain” times it was by no means easy to hear Soviet-bloc artists in the U.S., and recordings really established international reputations over here. And based on available recordings it was generally conceded that the two great Czechoslovak string quartets were the Janacek and the Smetana, the former based in Moravia (Brno), the latter in Bohemia (Prague). The heyday of the Janacek Quartet was the 1950s and 1960s when these recordings were made for Deutsche Grammophon, British Decca and Westminster. About half were recorded in mono, the rest are stereo; but all are, technically speaking, very decently produced and wear their years lightly. Performance highlights for me are the Decca recordings of Dvorak and Haydn quartets; the DG recording of the Brahms piano quintet (with Eva Bernathova); and the stunning Westminster performance of the Mendelssohn Octet (where the Smetana Quartet joins in!). The great conductor Karl Bohm once declared that the Czech lands were the spiritual home of great string playing, and when you hear these recordings you sense the justness of that remark. These players produce a strikingly beautiful but variegated sound and they phrase with an easy naturalness that, on every re-hearing, discloses new subtleties. No, this is not high-powered American string playing ala the Julliard Quartet; what the Janacek Quartet offers is a style and sound that is almost lost in today’s internationalized musical performance world.
Catch this set while you can; it’s billed as a limited edition and many of the performances have been unavailable (in the U.S., at least) since the early 1960s. Space-saving clamshell box format and price are additional inducements, but these priceless recordings would be a bargain at twice the price DG is charging. Final note: no collection of the Janacek Quartet’s work is complete without their stunning stereo recording of the two great quartets written by their namesake, currently available on a midprice Supraphon CD. Although an earlier, mono recording of the second Janacek quartet is included in the DG box, spend a little extra for the Supraphon CD just to get the Janacek Quartet’s equally stunning performance of Janacek No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata” quartet). You won’t regret the minor duplication, plus the Supraphon CD also includes a pleasant, “off the beaten path” quartet by Late Romantic Czech Vtislav Nowak as a substantial bonus.