Few chamber music groups have as proud a history as the Smetana Quartet, or a history that evokes as much nationalistic passion. Founded during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, the group's very existence was an anomaly during an era when any manifestation of Czech nationalism was outlawed. They survived into the post-Nazi era, and went on to an acclaimed international performing career, making some of the finest chamber music recordings of the 1950s and 1960s.
The Smetana String Quartet, named in honor of the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, had its roots in the Quartet of the Czech Conservatory, founded in 1943 by the cellist Antonin Kohout (b. 1919) in Prague. The other founding members were second violinist Lubomir Kostecky (b. 1922), with Vaclav Neumann (1920 - 1995) on viola and Jaroslav Rybensky on first violin. They gave their first performance as the Smetana Quartet on November 6, 1945, at the Municipal Library in Prague, which by that time had been liberated from the Nazis -- the program included Smetana's Quartet in E minor ("From My Life"), a work that they were destined to perform thousands of times during their subsequent history.
Neumann left the group in 1947 to begin his long conducting career, and Rybensky moved from first violin to viola, to be replaced on violin by Jirí Novak (b. 1924). By 1949, the group was officially associated with the Czech Philharmonic, which was rapidly recovering from the privations of World War II to become one of the top orchestras in Eastern Europe. They made their first tour outside of Czechoslovakia in 1949, to Poland, and began their recorded history in 1950 with Smetana's Quartet in D minor.
Rybensky left the group in 1952 because of his health, and was replaced by Milan Skampa (b. 1928), a gifted violist and a musicologist of some note as well. The group spent three years reinventing itself, re-emerging as an even stronger ensemble, the new mix of musical personalities proving even more potent. Their reputation and renown within Czechoslovakia were without equal, and all four members played a vital role in the musical life of Prague, including appointments as professors at the Academy of Musical Arts in 1967.
The Smetana Quartet learned its repertory -- which was, by design, very restricted in the number of pieces -- by rote, and performed without scores, which allowed them to achieve a tension and intimacy that few chamber groups of the period could match. Their live performances were spellbinding, and these elements even came through in their recordings. By the beginning of the 1970s, however, they were forced to add new material to their repertory, which, in turn, forced them to turn back to the use of scores and music stands, and brought about a change in their sound -- some of the tension and intimacy of their performances was lost, but in return they began playing in a more expansive fashion. They continued to find a wide audience, however, recording well into the digital era for both Supraphon and the Denon labels, and remained one of the most beloved chamber groups in the world right up until their final concert in 1989.
Their performances included the works of Smetana, Dvorak, Beethoven, Mozart, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Janácek, Martinu, and such contemporary composers as Zdenek Lukas, Vladimir Sommer, Jirí Pauer, Ivan Jirko, and Ilja Hurnik. During their more than 40 years together, they left behind dozens of recordings, all of them unique in their vibrancy and nuance. Their work for EMI's German Electrola label during the middle- and late '60s, however, has long been singled out for the quality of both performance and recording.