The Ulysses Quartet Explores the Heart of Janáček’s Quartet No. 2

The intensity and raw emotion of it really spoke to all of us

By the Ulysses Quartet | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

We find Leoš Janáček’s Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters,” to be one of the most fascinating and satisfying works in the quartet repertoire (which is saying something!). Janáček had a truly unique and innovative compositional voice, and the piece stands out for its unusual, disjointed structure and impactful emotional narrative. It’s also just a blast to play: it’s like the rock ’n’ roll of string quartet repertoire!


Players: Winner of the 2016 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and 2018 Schoenfeld International String Competition, the Ulysses Quartet (violinists Christina Bouey and Rhiannon Banerdt, violist Colin Brookes, and cellist Grace Ho) has performed in prestigious halls around the world, including Carnegie Hall, the Harbin Grand Theatre, and Jordan Hall. The ensemble served as Graduate Resident String Quartet at Juilliard from 2019–22 and has just released its first album on the Navona label, Shades of Romani Folklore
Title of Work Being Studied: Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”
Composer: Leoš Janáček
Date Composed: 1928
Name of Edition Studied: We’ve studied several editions and chosen to use primarily Editio Supraphon, published in Prague and edited by Otakar Šourek.


It was one of the first pieces we learned together as a quartet. The intensity and raw emotion of it really spoke to all of us; we felt like we could develop and showcase the unique aspects of our playing by diving in. Even now, years after we first approached it, we like to program this piece periodically because we feel it’s so effective, and it’s always fascinating for us to see how our interpretation has evolved over time with experience and perspective. We’re performing it at the moment to help promote our brand-new album, Shades of Romani Folklore, which features the Janáček alongside Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 4, and Paul Frucht’s Rhapsody.

This quartet really challenges us to explore the extremes of human emotion while maintaining technical control. It’s also an incredible process as an ensemble to develop our communication to the level where we can turn on a dime and respond to each other instantaneously as we move through the whiplash-inducing mood shifts. It makes us listen to each other in a deep way and take inspiration from our colleagues’ expression.

This piece was Janáček’s musical distillation of his passionate but enigmatic relationship with the much younger Kamila Stösslová. The “Intimate Letters” of the title refer to the hundreds of letters the pair exchanged, though they were both married to other people and—since her letters were destroyed at her own request—there is no evidence that Kamila shared Janáček’s level of infatuation. Janáček’s romance with Kamila was a complete fantasy, to the point where he wrote them both into his song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared in the roles of a Czech youth and his star-crossed lover, a Roma girl named Zefka. His conception of her as the exotic, free-spirited Roma woman permeates this quartet in its virtuosic, almost improvisatory feel and raw expression.


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We are players who like to wear our hearts on our sleeves, and this piece invites, maybe even demands, that kind of approach. Technically it’s challenging, but for us it’s much more about the personal opportunity to share a profound and vulnerable human experience with audiences. We are passionate about a lot of music—it’s one of the things the members of the quartet have in common—but this piece really holds a special place in our hearts. We can feel the longing, the tenderness, the frustration, and all of the rest of the emotional rollercoaster of the piece almost as if they were our own. Ultimately, it’s cathartic for us.

For those who are thinking about approaching this piece, we’d suggest that you dig deep into every character change, even if it only lasts a few measures, and internalize it so that you can instantly embody that character in the moment of performance. Changes happen so quickly in this piece that there is no time to “settle in” to a character, and its effectiveness depends on the strength and clarity of its astounding emotional content, along with the jarring nature of the shifts in mood.

The experience of learning and understanding such a rich and unique piece challenges you as a musician and helps you grow. There is so much room for personal interpretation and work to process the quick transitions between disparate characters and sections. We also think it’s just plain fun to play!

We would certainly recommend the Editio Supraphon, as it was overall the most convincing version of the piece to us. Because Janáček passed away before completing revisions on the quartet, there is no definitive “final” version of the work, and there exist very significant differences between editions. The tempo markings and dynamics in this score made the most sense to us when we tried them out and fit best with our concept of the characters and emotions of particular materials in the piece. 

What we would recommend most highly, however, is to look at as many sources as possible to understand the range of options available and see the piece from all angles. There are wildly different and equally valid ways to play this piece—make it your own, speak from your heart, and you won’t regret it!


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What the Ulysses Quartet Plays

Instruments

Violinist Christina Bouey—1790 Storioni violin on loan from a private donor
Violinist Rhiannon Banerdt—2013 Marco Coppiardi violin
Violist Colin Brookes—19th-century Italian viola from the school of Postiglione on loan from Maestro Foundation 
Cellist Grace Ho—2013 Grubaugh and Seifert cello 

Bows

Violinist Christina Bouey—an 1850 Joseph Henry and a 2005 Isaac Salchow 
Violinist Rhiannon Banerdt—an early 20th-century bow from the workshop of Johann Wilhelm Knopf
Violist Colin Brooks—an English Thomas Tubbs bow, circa 1845
Cellist Grace Ho—a bow from the workshop of Étienne Pajeot, circa 1845


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Strings & Cases

Bouey, Banerdt, and Brookes—Thomastik-Infeld Peter Infeld strings (with a tin E for violins) and Bam contoured Hightech cases
Ho—Pirastro Perpetual Edition A and D strings and Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore tungsten G and C

Instruments Played on Shades of Romani Folklore

On the album, Bouey plays the 1728 “Artot” Stradivari violin; Banerdt plays a 1737 Carlo Bergonzi violin; and Ho plays the 1642 “Willeke” Nicolò Amati, all of which were on loan from the Juilliard School. Ho was also using an Isaac Salchow bow on loan from a private donor.