If this is your intro to all things Janáček and Ligeti *maniacal laughter is occasionally interrupted by bouts of ass clenching thunder* these string quartets are some of the most hard-hitting emotional pieces ever put to the fucking page. These pieces are as mad as hatters jumping head first into everything crazed, chaotic, and deranged. These aural monsters are led, and controlled, by some of the best in the game: the Belcea Quartet.
But first, let’s peel back some Kreutzer.
Janáček’s first string quartet, “Kreutzer Sonata”, takes its name from Tolstoy’s novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata”. Pretty original, huh? In the novella, Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 plays a crucial role. The other name for Beethoven’s violin sonata? Yep, you fucking guessed it, the “Kreutzer Sonata”. Now this may sound like a fucked up classical chip dip, but you don’t get music this thick, juicy, and fine without some layers. Tolstoy’s novella is about a dude, Pozdnyshev, whiling the fuck out because he believes his wife is straddling another cowboy. While watching his pianist wife play Beethoven’s sonata, he becomes convinced that she’s fucking the violinist. And like so many great rappers have written about since, Pozdnyshev loses his fucking mind. You want to know the sound inside a man’s mind when he’s convinced his lady is some cheating hoe? This is it. If you listen closely enough, you hear this entire story unfold through the piece’s technically and emotionally extreme composition. This is crunky psychological thriller done up classical styles and dipped deep into literature stew.
Janáček’s second string quartet is, again, all about crazed love. This time, the shit ain’t fiction. Janáček had it bad for a married woman, 38 years younger than him, named Kamila. And when I say bad, I don’t mean the screen lit up his face as he night-stalked her on Facebook, I mean 700 letters exchanged kinda bad. Another name for this quartet is “manifest on love”. Janáček wrote to Kamila, in one of his many letters, “You stand behind every note, you, living, forceful, loving.” He later writes, “Those notes of mine kiss all of you.” Janáček didn’t like to play cool. Not his style. He was all unrelenting love 24/7. The viola line in this string quartet represents Kamila’s voice. Considering all this, you might think it would be happy lovely dovey flowery kinda shit. But it ain’t. Remember, despite trying to write this as a love letter, Janáček’s admiration was still from afar. So while you can hear the romantic nature of the piece, the chaos Janáček lived in everyday slips right in. It is that highly idealistic, unrealistic, and fanatical love that only comes when you elevate someone up past the point of make-believe and right into anime. Poor Janáček: unlucky at love but mad-skilled at composition.
If I had to think of composers that have best represented descent into madness, Ligeti would be on the tippy top of that list. Dude is fan-fucking-tastic at portraying lunacy in audio. You like any of those tunes on Kubrick’s 2001? Three of those motherfuckers are Ligeti. His first string quartet clocks in at twenty-four minutes. Sure, the piece could, and has, been broken down into seventeen pieces, but that’s not how this motherfucker is written. It was written as one continuous piece; thus it’s performed as one continuous piece. Rule one: never question the fucking page. Some think Ligeti’s later pieces weave a little too far off the map. This quartet is more accessible. And if you’re wise to all things classical and hear some Bartók influence, it’s because it’s fucking there. Some people even called it “Bartók’s seventh string quartet”.
As you might suspect, these fuckers aren’t easy to play. As other pieces veer left, these pieces take your mom on the most wonderful date she’s ever had and never calls her again; they’re unexpectedly cruel. The Belcea Quartet proved their talents back when playing Schubert, Ravel, Britten, and Beethoven string quartets like straight bosses. Their approach to Janáček and Ligeti is with the same dedication, dynamic range, and feeling that they’ve already shown. To be able to dig into these pieces and reveal their hidden story is like playingThis quartet goes from playing like a swarm of demonic mosquitoes swirling around your head to a team of pissed off chainsaws tearing through the front door. “Heeeeeere’s Belcea!” And like Kubrick, Hitchcock, or Polanski, though the pieces are royally fucked up and will definitely give you surreal nightmares, you can’t help but smile at the pure mastery of the craft and delivery.