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Both of Janácek’s quartets sit on the cusp of modernity: there’s romantic feeling aplenty, but also a wiry dissonance that unsparingly depicts a state of emotional and psychological turmoil.
Most performances play on the softer, sweeter aspects of the music – its folkloristic roots and dreamy shafts of lyricism. The Arcadia Quartet, a Romanian group who won the 2012 Wigmore Hall London International String Quartet Competition, head unflinchingly in the opposite direction. They create a mood of edgy expressionism that, in its violent swings and chromatic stresses, is shockingly direct and dramatic, like an opera – or a nightmare.
The Arcadias may occasionally overstate their case, but the playing has such intensity that you cannot mistake the First Quartet’s tragic despair or the Second’s existential force. The result is an assault on the senses, piercing the heart of this unsettling music: not for the faint-hearted.
The two string quartets