Talich Quartet brings Czech postcards from the edge

By Lawrence A. Johnson

 The program served up by the Talich Quartet Wednesday night at Gusman Concert Hall was an object lesson in everything chamber music should be: civilized, intelligent, challenging and performed on the highest musical level. The event was presented by Friends of Chamber Music of Miami, which, at a time of much upheaval among South Florida’s classical presenters, is quietly having a stellar season.

 Even in a part of Europe with a storied musical history, the Talich Quartet embodies deep national roots. The group was founded in 1964 by violinist Jan Talich, Sr., nephew of the celebrated conductor Vaclav Talich, who himself founded the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra.  And though no original members remain today—Jan Talich, Jr., has taken his father’s chair as first violinist—the ensemble’s clear empathy and flair for their native music was manifest in Wednesday’s all-Czech program.

 The most familiar of all Czech quartets is, oddly,  Dvorak’s American Quartet in F major, Op.96, composed during his sojourn in the U.S., yet decisively imbued with the melody of his native Bohemia.

  The Talich Quartet doesn’t possess a high-gloss, gleaming corporate sonority; rather, it’s a trim, dark-hued but acutely focused sound, well suited to their sensitive ensemble playing and refined musicianship, and put entirely at the service of the music.  In the performance of Dvorak’s American Quartet, there was never a sense of playing to the gallery, the sympathy for their most celebrated composer showing itself in a more subtle and less ostentatious approach to his melodies, expressively rendered but never milked for effect.

 Time and again the players conveyed the music with seemingly effortless facility whether Talich’s refined solo work or the spare elegance of cellist Petr Prause’s solos in the introspective Lento. There was no lack of vigor or dynamism in the scherzo or finale, which had the requisite exuberance while maintaining a degree of apt sobriety.

 The fact that Dvorak wrote thirteen other string quartets, many on the same inspirational level, is not reflected in the world’s concert halls, so kudos to the Talich for also giving us the composer’s Quartet in E flat major, Op. 51.  

 This earlier work was written to capitalize on the success of Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances, yet there’s no sense of writing to order. The freshness of the pastoral heart-easing opening theme and the natural flow of Dvorak’s rich thematic material is as deft and engaging as in the American Quartet or other more acclaimed works. Here too, the Talich’s restraint in the Dumka movement was striking, contrasts pointed yet not over-emphasized.

 Fine as the Dvorak performances were, the Talich members were most impressive in the roiling drama of Leos Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, which takes its subtitle, The Kreutzer Sonata, from Tolstoy’s novella of the same name.

 Like the story’s ill-fated heroine, Janacek’s quartet has an almost operatic intensity from its opening bars, which the Talich members dove into with daunting force. This is an extraordinary work, looking backward towards Smetana and forward to Bartok, and startlingly modern in its explosive drama with jagged waltz rhythms falling apart, driven allegros and squealing high harmonics that embody the quartet’s haunted, nerve-wracked world. The Talich Quartet’s performance was a tour de force, incisively focused, alarmingly intense and completely absorbing.

 Respoinding to the warm applause, the group came out for an encore that kept to the all-Czech motif with a quartet movement from Erwin Schulhoff. The Czech composer perished in a Bavarian concentration camp in World War II, and the jumbled eclectic mix of Czech, Jewish and jazz elements was delivered with great energy and panache.

Posted in Performances

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Thu Feb 12, 2009
at 12:57 pm
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