on 20 August 2013
I'm really very impressed by these two chamber works by Slovak composer Jan Levoslav Bella (1843-1936). Conventional though they might be in their structural outlines, the composer's use of chromaticism and the frequent modulations to unexpectedly far-flung keys reveal a creative mind that was as open to modern developments in Romantic music as it was respectful of traditional forms. Allied to that is a fine command of musical argument and a gift for thematic writing that is both memorable and attractive.
Both works on the disc frequently evince a rather serious tone - the tightly-constructed 'Allegro' that opens the C minor quartet is particularly remarkable for its concentrated energy and vigorous working out; its counterpart in the quintet scarcely less impressive though here the music is less taut, more lyrical perhaps, and the more varied and atmospheric writing for the strings adds much of the "appassionato" quality Bella appends to the movement's 'Allegro' heading. Both quartet and quintet conclude in the major (and, strikingly, rather quietly) but if there is the sense of an emotional, darkness-to-light victory it is hard-won battle I think, as even in the central movements the seriousness of tone is maintained: the 'Andante' and 'Adagietto' of each work temper their noble lyrical material with passages of sustained contrapuntal rigour (though not, I should add, of the sort that invokes academic dryness) while the scherzos both sound more ominous notes alongside the expected demonstrations of wit.
The Moyzes Quartet (joined by Frantisek Magyar on second viola in the quintet) play all this music marvellously: I don't know whether any of Bella's music was in their repertoire before they set down these recordings for Marco Polo but they certainly sound in perfect sympathy with his idiom and leave nothing to be desired from a technical point of view either. Sound quality is very fine and well-balanced, ensuring no details are lost even in the quintet, where Bella sometimes doubles the instrumental lines to give a richer sonority.
This disc has really whetted my appetite to hear more of this long-lived composer's music: I was fortunate enough to catch a broadcast of his symphonic poem, `Fate and the Ideal' a few months ago (which prompted me to investigate the precious little of his output that has been recorded) and that beautifully scored, imaginative piece suggests as much as the music here that this is a figure that is long overdue reappraisal. In the meantime, this disc can be safely - indeed, warmly - recommended to anyone interested in chamber music of the Romantic period.