SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1; SIBELIUS: String Quartet No.4 Op. 56; Andante Festivo – Kocian Quartet – Praga Digitals

Both quartets are “intimate voices” telling deeply personal tales from worrying times during which each composer was tried and tested.

Published on November 30, 2009

SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1; SIBELIUS: String Quartet No.4 Op. 56;  Andante Festivo – Kocian Quartet – Praga Digitals

SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1; SIBELIUS: String Quartet No.4 Op. 56;  Andante Festivo – Kocian Quartet – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250257 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]; 61:18 *****:

At first glance this may seem an odd pairing, particularly as the Smetana appears without its sibling. However, both quartets are “intimate voices” telling deeply personal tales from worrying times during which each composer was tried and tested.

Smetana’s First String Quartet was written in 1876 some two years after the composer had suffered a severe stroke which caused permanent damage to his hearing. He wrote: “What I set out to do was to retrace the unfolding of my life in music.” In the four movements Smetana sets out on display his love of art as a youngster, his romantic feelings, his love of Czech dance music, and in the third movement his love for the young girl who was to become his wife. In addition, the devastation of his illness is made clear by the high, loud and penetrating E, the tinnitus which was a plague after the stroke. The Kocian Quartet presents all this in a deeply felt yet stoic manner, the blend of the four players bearing witness to this Quartet’s great experience with this music.

Sibelius had his severe illness in 1908, a throat tumor possibly exacerbated by alcohol and tobacco, and while he had made a start on the work as early as 1901, it was in London in 1909 that he completed it. The tumour was benign and Sibelius lived on for nearly half a century.

The quartet is in five movements, the middle one a substantial adagio of considerable power. Pierre Barbier, in his excellent note, contrasts the inspiration here from both Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, particularly Manfred. The short vivace has those scurrying themes so loved in the Second Symphony, the allegretto references to Finnish folk music, and the last movement exciting with its quickening tempo and continuous energy.  Again, the Kocian Quartet produces a performance of the highest quality, rich tone and perfect balance assisting the enjoyment of this frankly uplifting music.

Sibelius had intended to write further string quartets, but in the end only the Andante Festivo was to appear, premièred in 1922, and later arranged for strings and timpani for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the only example of Sibelius on record as a conductor. This recording can be heard at sibelius.fi. The Kocian’s performance completes this disc with understated nobility.

Here again we are presented with yet another example of superb sound quality from Praga Digitals, whose series of chamber music recordings is very well worth investigating. The high resolution sound, which still sounds excellent in stereo CD mode, comes into its own when played as a multichannel SACD, the players appearing to the front, the rear speakers providing subtle ambience.  This is natural surround sound at its best.

– Peter Joelson




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