CARNEGIE HALL PRESENTS

Performance Friday, April 13, 2012 | 7:30 PM

Takács Quartet

Zankel Hall
The “consistently invigorating” (The New York Times) Takács Quartet is a group “at the peak of its profession” (The Boston Globe). It begins a two-night stay at Carnegie Hall with works by three giants of 20th-century music, including Janácek, who drew inspiration from the Tolstoy story for his “Kreutzer Sonata,” and Britten, who wrote his inaugural string quartet when he was only 17.
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The Program

LEOŠ JANÁČEK
String Quartet No. 1, "Kreutzer Sonata"

About the Composer


Long after the successful premiere of his opera Jenůfa in 1904, Janáček remained little known outside his native Moravia. His modest fame rested largely on his accomplishments as a teacher, organist, and musical folklorist. It wasn't until 1916 when a revised version of Jenůfa was staged in Prague that his fame began to spread. Janáček was already moving away from the late-Romantic idiom of his early works to the distinctive style of his maturity, characterized by terseness, abrupt changes of mood and atmosphere, and speech-like rhythmic patterns. In the last decade of his life, his passionate (but platonic) affair with Kamila Stösslová sparked a white-hot blaze of compositional activity. Janáček immortalized his young muse in such masterworks as the operas Kát'a Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair, as well as String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters," which the Takács Quartet performs tomorrow evening.


About the Work


Janáček's gift for impassioned utterance and dramatic characterization are on full display in his String Quartet of 1923. The work takes its subtitle from Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata, in which a pathologically jealous husband stabs his wife upon discovering her with her violinist paramour. At a crucial point in the story, the two lovers play Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata together, prompting the cuckolded husband to declare that "music in general is a terrible thing ... Its effect is neither to elevate nor to degrade, but to excite." After reading Tolstoy's novella in the original Russian many years earlier, the Slavophile Janáček was inspired to compose a piano trio (now lost), some of whose ideas subsequently gave rise to the quartet. Whether those ideas were musical or programmatic, Janáček's own loveless marriage provides a compelling subtext for the First String Quartet—unlike Tolstoy's tormented protagonist, though, he found at least a measure of happiness in his last years.


A Closer Listen


The fact that all four movements are marked con moto suggests that Janáček envisioned the quartet as a continuous narrative. Yet nearly everything else about the music—its unstable rhythms, disjointed structure, and harsh juxtapositions of tender lyricism and savage angst—bespeaks discontinuity. The opening theme—a sad little tune that rises and falls back on itself in exhaustion—casts a mood of bleak despair that is never fully dispelled: Its return in the quartet's final bars is less a sign of closure than of open-ended grief. Even the work's lighter moments, such as the cello's perky countermelody at the beginning, are fraught with anxiety and foreboding. Janáček's sympathies were clearly with the wife in Tolstoy's morbid tale of marital infidelity: In a letter to Stösslová about the quartet, he conjured the image of "a poor woman, tormented, beaten, battered to death."


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

BENJAMIN BRITTEN
String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25

About the Composer


A professed pacifist, homosexual, and agnostic, Britten paradoxically came to be widely regarded as the most quintessentially English composer since Henry Purcell. As a young man, he had little sympathy for the patriotic effusions of the older generation, gravitating instead toward young mavericks like Frank Bridge, William Walton, and Lennox Berkeley. During the 1930s, work in a government film production unit brought him into contact with a cadre of left-wing writers and artists who shared his disdain for bourgeois convention. When his friends W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood moved to New York in 1938, Britten and his lover, tenor Peter Pears, quickly followed. Highlights of his three productive years in North America included the limpid song cycle Les illuminations, the folk operetta Paul Bunyan, the powerful Sinfonia da Requiem, and the ever-popular Ceremony of Carols.


About the Work


The D-Major Quartet was the last major work Britten completed before he and Pears returned to England in 1942. They had set off for California in the spring of 1941, lured by the siren song of Hollywood. But the hoped-for studio work failed to materialize, and Britten jumped at a timely commission from arts patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The commission had just one condition: The work had to be finished in time for a performance in Los Angeles three weeks later. "Short notice and a bit of a stretch," he declared, "but I'll do it as the cash will be useful!" Britten, who was staying in the home of pianist friends in Escondido, holed himself up in a backyard shed where he wouldn't be distracted by their practicing. The Coolidge Quartet premiered the new opus—on schedule—on September 21.


A Closer Listen


Despite its traditional key designation, the D-Major Quartet masks its tonal identity as carefully as the intensely private composer guarded his personal life. It opens with a softly shimmering three-note cluster—D, E, F-sharp—that returns later in the movement, transformed into undulating triplets. Alternating with outbursts of prickly, propulsive counterpoint, this unstable chord prepares our ears for the fine-grained ambiguities of the ensuing movements: a short, skittish, scherzo-like Allegretto con slancio and a melancholy, meandering Andante calmo, whose throbbing, mildly dissonant harmonies are shot through with a sense of resignation. It's not until the last bars of the playful Molto vivace that D major finally emerges as the tonal center around which Britten's enigmatic music has been fitfully circling. 


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

CLAUDE DEBUSSY
String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10

About the Composer


In 1893, Debussy was still finding his voice and struggling for recognition. Although the 31-year-old composer had already completed La damoiselle élue for women's voices and orchestra, his revolutionary masterpiece Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune was still on the drawing board, and another decade would pass before the success of his symbolist opera Pelléaset Mélisande made him a household name. At once radical and traditionalist, Debussy rebelled against the ponderous academic style of establishment composers like Saint-Saëns and d'Indy. Proudly signing himself "compositeur français," he urged his compatriots to return to the "pure French tradition" that he admired in the music of 18th-century composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.


About the Work


Debussy's only string quartet had a difficult gestation (he evidently planned to write another but never got around to it). Conscious that he was plowing new ground, he fussed over the score like a first-born child, starting over three times before sending it out into the world. The composer's "Classical" side is apparent in the quartet's clearly delineated themes, the magnetic pull of tonal centers, and the intermittent stretches of disciplined canonic writing. Yet the work's recurring elements reflect Debussy's abiding interest in organic musical processes and anticipate Bartók's use of cyclical forms in his quartets. The renowned Ysaÿe Quartet gave the first performance of the piece in Paris on December 29, 1893.


A Closer Listen


The G-Major Quartet is laid out in the traditional four-part format, with a scherzo-like second movement and a sweetly expressive Andantino  sandwiched between two expansive and dynamic fast movements. Although Debussy probably borrowed the idea of using common thematic material to unify the four movements from César Franck's D-Major Quartet of 1889, he went far beyond his teacher in the use of unconventional chord sequences, exotic scalar patterns, and nonfunctional harmonies. From the opening bars, the listener is swept up in the work's sensuous and emotionally turbulent sound world. The first violin presents a terse motto whose sinuous contour—one step down, a skip, and a rising third finished off with a triplet curlicue—recurs throughout the quartet in various intervallic and rhythmic guises. Also typical of Debussy's mature style are the work's vividly orchestral sonorities and shifting tonal perspectives in which a repeated note or phrase is cast in subtly different lights as the harmonic ground shifts beneath it.


—Harry Haskell

© 2012 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

This performance is part of Chamber Sessions I.

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