I can listen to Dvořák’s mature chamber music at any time of the day or night, something which does not hold for every composer. When the music is for strings, it is always a joy to hear how this self-styled “simple Czech musician” varies textures and suits his material to the individual instruments. Which is not to say that everything is easy to play.
The E-flat String Quintet, composed in Spillville, Iowa, in the summer of 1893, is dear to my heart. Although partially written in Dvořák’s ‘American’ style, with influences which have been traced to Native American singers, dancers and drummers, it is Czech to its core. The hymn-like theme of the variation third movement was notated on the opening page of Dvořák’s first American sketch book. The second half of it was at one stage intended for a setting of ‘My country, ’tis of thee’ but the entire theme found its true home in the ‘American’ Quintet. The first two movements, especially the Scherzo, dance in a way that shows how much Dvořák influenced what we think of as ‘cowboy’ music. I used to like the main theme of the Finale less than the rest, but I am now well accustomed to it.
Tempos in this version by the expanded Takács Quartet are all orthodox. Lawrence Power’s viola gets the first movement off to a sonorous start and once the Allegro non tanto is truly launched, the music dances quite nicely, if with the faintest hint of rhythmic instability. Power also gives a good kick to the Allegro vivo, which is just a little lacking in gusto. In the Trio, Geraldine Walther has to fight to stay in tune for her solo and does not always win: it also sounds rather contrived, and Edward Dusinberre’s vibrato when he takes up the melody may not be to all tastes. At the Scherzo’s return, the players again dance rhythmically but lack the ultimate in exultation. All five are at their best in the Larghetto, a little fidgety in one or two variations but getting to the heart of the matter. The Finale has the odd patch of slight rhythmic instability but is mostly fine.
The A-flat Quartet, Opus 105, of 1895 acquired its opus number because Dvořák began it in America but finished it in Bohemia, in the meantime having written the entire G-major, Opus 106. It is slightly smaller in scale than that masterpiece but features some of the composer’s best music. The Takács members provide a good slow introduction but when the Allegro appassionato begins, the Dusinberre crushes the odd note almost out of existence – Dvořák was always insistent that every note should be heard –and in this movement his vibrato again sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.In the Scherzo he crushes more notes too tightly: the Trio is nicely played. The beautiful Lento is very well sung by all. The Finale is not Dvořák’s best, perhaps, but that was no excuse for it to be cut to ribbons in the pre-war recording by the Prague Quartet, so as to fit on to one 78rpm side. Even the great Smetana Quartet made a twelve-bar cut in these musicians’ otherwise nonpareil 1965 recording. The Takács members take it at face value and treat it pretty well, except when the cellist, who has so far been fairly sleepy, decides to go mad in two passages – Dvořák’s dynamics are never higher than ff and I have not heard another cellist do this.
The recordings, engineered by Simon Eadon and produced by Andrew Keener, are probably true to playing which, while never dropping below a certain standard, falls short of the best to be heard in these works. Misha Donat’s notes, as always with him, throw up interesting points, but he inexplicably reverses the two given names of Dvořák’s American amanuensis Josef Jan Kovařík – later the distinguished principal viola of the New York Philharmonic.
Like Opus 105, the Quintet was first recorded by the old Prague Quartet, with Richard Kozderka from Brno. That was a superb performance, even though the first viola Ladislav Černý appropriated most of Kozderka’s solos! There was a fine account by the Budapest Quartet with Milton Katims on a mono Columbia LP, and in early stereo days a Supraphon recording by the Dvořák Quartet and Josef Koďousek of the Vlach Quartet made the running. In 1973 came my all-time favourite, by the Smetana Quartet with Josef Suk playing first viola – it is unsurpassed, even by their fine digital remake. Most leading Czech ensembles of the CD era, the Panocha and Pražák in particular, have made excellent recordings; and this year two splendid up-to-date versions have come out, by the Škampa Quartet with Krzysztof Chorzelski of the Belcea Quartet (Champs Hill CHRCD110) and the Pavel Haas Quartet with their former violist Pavel Nikl (Supraphon SU 4195-2). They are linked by having the same first viola, as Radim Sedmidubský was with the Škampa when their recording was made in 2015 but has since replaced Nikl in the Pavel Haas. When Champs Hill first began issuing recordings from its Music Room, I found the sound too resonant, but the acoustic is now mastered and this disc, produced, engineered and edited by Patrick Allen, is first-rate. The logical coupling is the ‘American’ Quartet. By a small margin my own choice would be the Pavel Haas, who add the Piano Quintet, Opus 81, with Boris Giltburg. Depending on your particular needs, you can safely make a choice based on the couplings.
The A-flat Quartet has never been better played than by the Smetana Quartet (Testament SBT 1075) but if that small cut bothers you, there are absolutely spiffing state-of-the art versions by the Panocha Quartet – whose second recording (Camerata CMCD-28093) is to be preferred – and, perhaps more easily obtainable, the Zemlinsky Quartet (Praga Digitals PRD/SRD 250 300). The latter’s well-filled CD also has the ‘American’ Quartet and the Terzetto, while the Panocha version is coupled with the E-flat ‘Slavonic’, Opus 51.
Fans of the Takács Quartet will not be led too far astray by this Hyperion but, as I have indicated, they can do a little better.