Those who value numerology will note that this release is number 555 in Signum’s catalogue, which must signify good luck. At any rate, it is a splendid recording debut but for the Albion Quartet, who had been going for only two years when it was made. I have been aware of Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Rosalind Ventris since they were in their early teens and I have watched their progress with interest. The other two musicians appear to be just as talented, on this evidence. With a name starting with A, which will get these musicians near the top of all alphabetical lists, they should do well.This issue is announced by Signum as the first of a Dvořák cycle. Having had bad experiences with some of the British and American ensembles who tackle this composer, I always fear the worst; but the Albion members prove they are in earnest by starting with Opus 9 in F-minor, one of two Quartets Dvořák wrote towards the end of 1873 when he was on something of a rollercoaster as far as success went. The manuscript has not survived and we have to rely on Günter Raphael, who edited it for publication in 1929 – it was first performed in 1930. Four pages from the start of the Scherzo did not reach Raphael, which accounts for its brevity. Although Dvořák did not truly come into his kingdom until the A-minor Quartet, Opus 16, there is much to beguile in Opus 9 as well as a modicum of Bohemian national colour, especially in the Finale.
It starts softly and slowly (Moderato) and immediately it is clear that the Albions observe a good range of dynamics and that they make an excellent sound. They erupt nicely into the Allegro con brio, which is attractive: Dvořák throws three-note figures about with gay abandon in a quite long and garrulous movement of sudden contrasts, with an exciting coda. The slow movement (Andante con moto quasi allegretto) – later arranged by Dvořák for violin and orchestra (or piano) as his Romance, Opus 11, is beautifully sung by the Albions and when the opening theme returns after the contrasting central section, they provide lovely soft playing. The third movement is marked Tempo di valse but is much more Scherzo-like: Waley-Cohen’s violin is very bold against the background of the other players and there is a lyrical Trio. The Finale (Vivace ma non troppo) begins with vague mutterings and a reference back to the opening movement: the usual order of the two main themes is reversed, the lyrical one coming first, and the players manage to give an impression of pent-up excitement throughout.
The ‘American’ Quartet generally needs Czech players to give it life, and I can pay no greater compliment to the Albion musicians than to say that they sound thoroughly authentic, every little accent and grace in place, every note-value and every rhythm correct. At the same time, their playing is thoroughly vivacious. Apparently they play quite a lot of Czech music have studied the recordings from the 1920s by the Bohemian Quartet, favourites with me too.The Allegro ma non troppo starts well and Ventris’s viola solo is excellent – we hear it twice, as the exposition repeat is observed. They slow down quite a lot for the second theme but get away with it – and if you go back to some of the historic performances by Czech players you will find an even greater contrast between the two main themes. In the Lento Waley-Cohen Nathaniel Boyd duet beguilingly, with the inner parts kept alive by Emma Parker and Ventris. The rhythm in the Scherzo (Molto vivace) is excellent, the Trio is nicely done and once again you notice how good the dynamic range is. The players set off at a good lick in the Finale (Vivace ma non troppo), really buoyant: the little Meno mosso episode, depicting Dvořák playing the organ in the Spillville church, is sensitively done and the ending is triumphant.
As a substantial encore, the Albions offer the beautiful Meditation by Josef Suk I, composed in 1914 for the Bohemian Quartet – he was the second violinist – to play at wartime concerts. The playing by the muted strings is very beautiful at the start – the mutes do not come off for quite some time – and yet again the wide dynamic range is most welcome: the Albions rise to the climaxes with heartfelt commitment and achieve a lovely quiet ending.
The Britten Studio does not sound particularly spacious but engineer Mike Hatch has contrived to capture some very fine sonorities. The proof-reading of the booklet has been sloppy: there are some literals in Rosalind Ventris’s note and both on the back inlay and the inside cover of the booklet the first work is described as being in F-major and Opus 92. The centre spread is taken up by a photograph of the Albion members waving their bows about in the sensationalist modern manner, to which I can only say: tut tut.