Portland String Quartet Reads “Intimate Letters”

Portland String Quartet
Woodfords Congregational Church
April 23
by Christopher Hyda

It’s a good thing that the form of synesthesia which unites music with visual imagery is rare. Otherwise Leoš Janáček’s great String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”) (1928) could not be performed in public, except perhaps with an “adults only” warning.

The work, lovingly rendered by the Portland String Quartet, April 23 at Woodfords Congregational Church, depicts, in four passionate movements, the affair of the aged composer with a woman 38 years his junior. Both were married.

In his always astute program notes, Will Herz suggests that the affair was platonic. If the music itself is any indication, I tend to doubt that (generally accepted) opinion.

The quartet is brimming with wondrous melodies, like Borodin’s but a bit harder to whistle. Most of them are derived from an intricate system of correspondences involving the names of the protagonists, their dates of birth, and numerous other numerical and linguistic sources. (I am indebted to composer Elliott Schwartz’ analysis of these in a lecture he gave in Brunswick a few years ago.)

Another characteristic of the music is the use of speech patterns and inflections to shape its phrases. In some of them one can almost make out the words, such as “the beautiful Madame so-and-so.” The example is in English, but I’m sure that anyone who knows the language(s) of the former Czechoslovakia would recognize many more.

One of my favorite passages in all opera is the speech-song uttered by the young frog at the conclusion of Janáček’s “The Cunning LIttle Vixen.” The pantheism of that opera is also evident in the quartet, in which natural sounds, such as bird song, are employed to express the lovers’ most joyful moments.

All of these beauties and more were brought out by the quartet, in one of its most striking performances of the season. Its new cellist, Patrick Owen, was vital to the amorous depictions.

The program began with Stravinsky’s seven-minute Concertino for String Quartet (1920), generally conceded to be the first work of his “neoclassical” period. It was always an ill fit, and the Concertino is schizophrenic, driving rhythms contrasted with antique dance forms, lyrical passages written in dissonant harmonies, and so on. At the very end, Stravinsky seems actually to be flirting with a tonic resolution until he decides not to go there and ends up in the air.

The afternoon finished with Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in D Major, Opus 44, No. 1, plain vanilla after what had gone before, but a charming and light-hearted chaser for such strong drink. An enduring characteristic of the PSQ has been its faithfulness to the composer’s intentions. In the first movement one could almost see Mendelssohn deciding what to do next with his theme. My note was: ”They show how it works.”

The final Presto con brio (alla tarantella) brought the audience to its feet.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.

One thought on “Portland String Quartet Reads “Intimate Letters””

  1. Your review was much appreciated! I agree with you that the music itself (Janacek) causes one to question the opinion that it was a platonic relationship. Julia

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