BBC Legends – Smetana Quartet

0 of 5 stars

Terzetto in C for two violins and viola, Op.74
String Quartet in A flat, Op.105
String Quartet No.1 (The Kreutzer Sonata)

Smetana Quartet [Jiří Novák & Lubomir Kostecký (violins), Milan Škampa (viola) & Antonin Kohout (cello)]

Recorded in BBC Studios, London on 24 January 1969 (Dvořák Terzetto) and in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 2 February 1975

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: August 2006
BBCL 4180-2
Duration: 70 minutes

Some reviews are a pleasure to write and this is certainly one of them.

The Smetana Quartet was formed in 1945 – the original personnel including conductor-to-be Václav Neumann as violist (until 1947) – with the last change in the Smetana’s line-up, until it disbanded in 1989, was in 1956, when Milan Škampa replaced Jaroslav Rybenský as the viola player.

During the 1960s and 1970s I – like many others – picked up often ridiculously cheap LPs of the quartet in mainly Eastern European music. I came to admire the players’ unforced musicality, natural phrasing and rhythmic subtlety.

This BBC Legends’ release features stereo recordings recorded from 1969 and 1975 – and the sound is very fine. There is a sense of both venues’ acoustic, a natural balance and very fine imaging and resolution. On the down side there are mild patches of what used to be called ‘wow and flutter’. But, unlike some of the Legends’ series, the sound does not get in the way of the music-making and the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience is virtually silent.

In terms of technique the Smetana Quartet has occasional problems. Ensemble – by clinical modern standards – can slip, as can exactness of bowing and intonation, but these ‘lapses’ are few and far between. But when the musicians glide into Dvořák’s Terzetto, the sweet tone is beautiful, the expression urbane and there is a sense of conversation between the players. In this sadly neglected four-movement work the tempo changes and phrasing are natural and a quiet sense of melancholy imbues every bar – irrespective of tempo marking.

Janáček’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ – a great piece – opens with beautifully gradated dynamics that heighten the sense of French impressionism. The accelerandos in the Con moto second movement are seamlessly integrated, as they are in the finale, where the opening tempo is a genuine adagio that still moves inexorably forward. Indeed the whole performance captures every change of mood with integration.

Dvořák’s masterly A flat Quartet is similarly outstanding, every tempo change is unforced and the rhythmic variation is brilliant. None of the tempos could be described as too leisurely. In the Molto vivace second movement there is a genuine sense of the dance and in the second section there is a disquieting sense of undulating emotion, and the Lento e molto cantabile third movement really does sing at a tempo that makes many other quartets sound self-indulgent. The finale has real high spirits and, as with the rest of the performance, it just sounds right – like any great performance you feel that this is the way the music should be played.

So a wonderful CD, which captures a style of music-making that is – tragically – dying out, and an essential buy for all chamber music lovers.

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