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SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 & No. 2; Piano Trio – Prazak Quartet/ Nathalia Milstein, piano – Praga Digitals

by / February 21, 2018/ Classical Reissue Reviews/

Intense and masterfully performed, these three Smetana chamber music staples enjoy fiercely passionate renderings.

SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in e minor “From My Life”; String Quartet No. 2 in d minor; Piano Trio in g minor, Op. 15 – Prazak Quartet/ Nathalia Milstein, piano – Praga Digitals PRD/DSD 350 151, 75:53 (2/16/18) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

Recorded in 2017, these refreshed performances of Bedrich Smetana’s famous 1876 String Quartet No. 1 and his 1855 Piano Trio, along with the lesser known d minor Quartet of 1883, can claim a visceral authority in the lexicon of stellar interpretations. The French pianist Nathalia Milstein (b. 1995) joins violinist Jana Vonaskova and cellist Michal Kanka in the spirited tribute to the Czech spirit that defines the Smetana legacy.

The opening chord of “From My Life” should notify the alert listener of the fierce and passionate gravitas of the ensuing performance of this most autobiographical of chamber works. “What I set out to do was to retrace the unfolding of my life in music,” wrote Smetana, after a stroke in 1874 had begun its inexorable debilitation of his musical and mental faculties. Josef Kluson’s anguished viola serves as the emissary of Smetana’s voice, brutally interrupted in the first movement, as it will later suffer in the finale, with the incursion of the composer’s deafness, whose high E announces a doom upon him.  After the frenzied Polka second movement, the ensuing, expansive Largo sostenuto in A-flat assumes an even more obsessive force, exclaiming Smetana’s passionate love for the young girl who became his wife.  The national strain of Bohemian life vehemently erupts once more in the Finale: vivace, only to suffer the outrageous fortune of oncoming deafness, which leads to a broken series of recollections of earlier motifs, the quick triplets of the cello, and a slow, disillusioned coda, bereft of optimism.

The power of concision marks the d minor Quartet, whose models lie in Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 3 in C and the F Major Quartet, Op. 135. Rather through-composed, the work opens with an Allegro whose moods contrast but reappear in various guises, similar to the “fate” motif in the Beethoven Fifth. Tragic in tone, the theme marked largamente does little to alleviate the gloom. The ferocity of the Prazak’s attacks do little to alleviate the consistency of mood, so that the turn to F Major in the coda proffers only false hope. A polka follows, much in the spirit of “From My Life,” which soon transforms into a dumka movement of alternating moods, an E Major andante cantabile in 3/8.  A chorale emerges, unisono and fortissimo, establishing the religiosity of Smetana’s devotion to the dance. Emotional confusion reigns supreme in the Allegro non piu moderato, ma agitato e con fuoco, a Beethoven moment of intense, almost vicious, inwardness, in which the evolving melody seems to dead-end and has recourse to fugal treatment.   The music disintegrates into a series of effects: tremolos, sighs, and lamentations. A big C Major peroration – maestoso, energico – comes to the “rescue” with a placid coda. The Presto – Allegro last movement has no fewer contradictions, moving attacca from the third movement into a manic moto-perpetuo, rife with polka rhythm. The lyric tune derives from the opera The Devil’s Wall and suffused with appropriate tritones and fourths. The coda finds “solace” of a kind in D Major, but we may have little faith in the musical deus ex machina.

Franz Liszt in 1873 stood up and paid homage to Smetana and his Piano Trio: “You have shown an understanding of the powers of music, confession of the soul.” Michal Kanka’s sublime cello should win new hearts for this potent work, ably supported by violin and piano in facile harmony. Smetana dedicated the g minor Trio—the same tragic key as the Mozart Symphony No. 40—“to the memory of an angel,” that is, his deceased daughter Bedriska, virtually a preview of the Alban Berg Violin Concerto. The chromatic theme evolves through the interval of a fifth, often employed in Baroque music as a tragic affect. The cello proffers a theme of consolation, which the violin takes up, but whose rendering is all the more nostalgic and tearful. The martial progression that ensues has much of Chopin’s national vigor and a touch of the Brahms stoicism.

The middle movement has something of Schumann in its quirky energy, perhaps a recollection of the daughter Bedriska at play, before the onset of scarlet fever that robbed the earth of her magical presence. Violin and cello engage in a dialogue that may well reprise a father-daughter colloquy. The latter part of the movement seems martial and resigned at once. The last movement Finale: Presto cites some 100 measures of an 1846 Piano Sonata in g minor by the composer. In a rollicking, fevered 6/8, the music alternates duple and triplet meters, invoking buzzing folk music that must bear lyrical, sad outpourings from the cello.  Pianist Milstein has patiently waited her turn to explode with her natural, fluid bravura. By the end of the movement, Smetana cannot quite decide if he wants dire tragedy or saving optimism, so he ends in the major key that ultimately celebrates his national heritage over his personal afflictions.

—Gary Lemco

Prazak quartet and Nathalia Milstein play Smetana


Highly regarded as interpreters of Central European repertoire, but not solely as such (!), in the last few years the Pražák Quartet have rediscovered their momentum with Jana Vonášková, previously violinist with the Smetana Trio. The context, twenty years after a first recording for the same company, to record again these three masterpieces by the Czech composer.  As with Janáček, Smetana’s chamber music is a personal diary, the art of gathering intensity.  Strong emotions, the sense of urgency, of anger, an intoxicating dance: a palette of contrasts handled with skill by the Pražáks in both quartets, the intense first quartet ‘From My Life’ of 1876, and the second in mood more elegiac and characterised by the strange lyrical expressionism of its last movement.  The striking unanimity of the Pražáks, and their vitality too, are very much on a par with the Smetana (recording of 1962) and with the Škampa Quartet (2003) and these qualities continue when violinist and cellist (Michal Kaňka) are joined by pianist Nathalia Milstein for a superlative performance of the churningly emotional Trio op.15 of 1855, like a ‘confession of the soul’ according to an admiring and deeply affected Liszt.

 Franck Mallet

Bedrich Smetana

Smetana : Quartets n° 1 “From my life” et n° 2 ; Trio, op. 15

Nathalia Milstein (piano)

Prazak Quartet

1 CD Praga Digitals PRD 350 151

1 h 16 min

20 Mars 2018

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