By Ted AYALA
Few composers experienced the transformation, indeed the kind of second musical youth, that Leoš Janáček experienced. The fire that ignited this fuse was the largely unrequited love he felt for Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 38 years his junior.
“My soul and feeling is warmed and comes to a boil only through a single woman. That’s why my compositions have become so wild,” he wrote to her two years after the composition of his “String Quartet No. 1,” which was among works on the Le Salon de Musiques program on Sunday evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Nicknamed “The Kreutzer Sonata” by the composer in a nod to the eponymous Tolstoy novella that inspired it, in playing the piece the quartet communicated a passion, a sensual ardor that defies the fact that the composer entered his 70th year during the quartet’s composition.
In this and in Bedrich Smetana’s often anguished “String Quartet No. 1,” a musical autobiography of the composer’s descent into illness and deafness, the Le Salon string quartet (comprised of violinists Jessica Guidiri and Serena McKinney, violist Yi Zhou, and cellist Ben Hong) were more precise than passionate, more at home with those works’ brief driftings into straight-ahead merriness than with their tragedy. Smetana’s “A la Polka” scherzo was delivered with enviable charm and grace, while the outer movements – especially the work’s utterly heartbreaking coda – were churned out rather prosaically.
The Janáček was much the same: exacting technical polish, but at the cost of glossing over the work’s electric current of expression and feeling. The playing was exciting, but frosty, distant.
The quartet was on firmer footing in the two works that opened the concert. Josef Suk’s “Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale St. Wenceslas” was played with sumptuous tone and fine attention to its textural details. But in Herbert Howells’ all-out gorgeous “Fantasy String Quartet” the best qualities of the quartet really shone, its qualities playing to the quartet’s strengths. Lucid, rapt and utterly beautiful, the Howells work is a kind of chamber counterpart to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” and “A Lark Ascending.” The Le Salon quartet reveled in the work’s beauty, spinning diaphanous webs of tone again and again.
It was also the kind of musical discovery that showcased the very best of Le Salon founder François Chouchan’s mission: to brush the dust off of works cast aside or overlooked by musical history. The Howells’ masterwork was a welcome surprise, but the masterly playing of the Le Salon musicians is everything we’ve come to expect from this intrepid organization.