Martinů String Quartet no. 2, H. 150

performed by the Martinů Quartet, available from Spotify on this album

(cover image by Chris Barbalis)

Martinů’s brilliantly engaging second quartet was written in 1925, and published in 1927. Depending on the source, it was written either “in Paris” (says Keith Anderson at Naxos) or “in 18 days during a vacation back to his hometown of Policka, Czechoslovakia” (says Joseph Stephenson).

In contrast with Martinů’s rather large first quartet, which Stephenson calls “overly-long, derivative, yet lovely,” this three-movement work is only around 20 minutes in duration, as follows:

  1. Moderato (andante) – allegro vivace
  2. Andante- moderato
  3. Allegro scherzando

Anderson tells us that Martinů’s “first formal string quartets, now lost, were written in 1912 and 1917, respectively.” There is some mixup with the numbering, but ultimately, because of the publisher or some clerical error, the works were mislabeled and it stuck. Anderson also says that this piece “reflects something of the effect Roussel had had on his work during the previous two years.”

Whatever the source of the inspiration or influence, this work is jaw-droppingly more mature and compelling than the first quartet, which was nice enough but really not remarkable. This quartet is remarkable, showing such a gift for rhythmic vitality, color, and of course melody. There is a panache that was almost entirely entirely absent from (or at least very muted) in the first quartet.

The first movement begins with a moderato introduction that has one foot in the subdued French language of the previous quartet, but has already completely moved into more exotic territory. This stepwise motion that begins the quiet first section of this music is like an unwinding, a coming to life. It’s just magical.

And come to life it does. The movement becomes driving, chromatic, and rich, but contrast is almost abruptly provided with a rustic dance-like subject. What ensues is just thrilling music, with the interesting effect, to me, that the secondary folklike theme becomes justified, or integrated, as the movement develops. It seemed almost incongruous after the introduction and first subject, but everything builds and comes together to make for a wholly enjoyable, rich and relatively compact first movement. It’s absolute genius!

We have another moderato marking in the second movement, but with almost none of the motion from the first movement’s moderato. The atmosphere here is static, almost morbid, but also just arresting, in an entirely different way. There are moments of greater intensity, but even they are somewhat droning, marked by an enormous sense of tension. The central part of this movement provides some mild respite, with a little bit of actual motion, and just a tinge of brightness before returning to the static atmosphere to close.

The finale, marked ‘scherzando’, so scherzo-ish, is again full of contrast, but begins by calling to mind at least the spirit of the second subject of the first movement. Anderson says that “A lighter mood starts the last movement, with its clearly marked sections suggesting rondo form.” These sections continue the skill that Martinů seems to have either developed or discovered, with exciting rhythms and pleasing melodies; a standout in this movement, though, and kind of an ambitious way to begin to close the work, is an outstanding violin cadenza. It’s quite virtuosic, and what follows feels to me like an extension of that folklike spirit in the first movement.

This string quartet packs so much powerful material into a very small package, enough to captivate and leave a stunning impression, but also a desire for just a little more. It hardly outwears its welcome, and generates considerably more interest than the first quartet did into the subsequent quartets of the Czech composer, and his output of quartets that Praga Digitals refers to as “seven string quartets that do not, by any means, form a cycle but rather a succession of testimonies stretching from 1920 to 1947.” Lots more to look forward to!

And that can also be said for this week. Martinů also will be getting featured with a violin concerto and a symphony, so please do stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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