String Quartet No. 8 in E major, Op. 80
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, Op 51
Albion Quartet – Tamsin Waley-Cohen & Emma Parker (violins), Rosalind Ventris (viola) & Nathaniel Boyd (cello)
Recorded 15-17 May 2018, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: David Truslove
Reviewed: August 2020
CD No: SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD575
Duration: 57 minutes
This impressive new release from the Albion Quartet is the group’s second disc for Signum following their debut album in 2019 featuring Dvořák’s Opp. 9 and 96. A year earlier Signum and Tamsin Waley-Cohen (with Huw Watkins), issued a disc of Bohemian violin repertoire from Dvořák, Suk and Janáček. Armed with these credentials the young Brits of the Albion Quartet (led by Waley-Cohen) have ventured into a crowded market occupied by several Czech ensembles including the Pavel Haas, Skampa and Wihan quartets. But the Albions freshness and spontaneity does them credit, so too their identification with these emotionally contrasting quartets: one elegiac, the other good humoured.
To the melancholic undertow of Opus 80 (originally conceived in 1876 not long after the death of his first daughter then revised some ten years later as Op. 80) the Albion respond with unsentimental tenderness. The opening Allegro is by no means entirely sepia-tinged as passages of emphatic rhythms and fierce bow strokes indicate. A welcome naturalness flows through its shapely curves, its consoling second subject wonderfully affectionate, perhaps without the rapture of the Vlach Quartet but nonetheless smoothly persuasive.
There’s a luminous quality to the dreamy slow movement, even the quietest moments seem to dazzle and guitar-like figuration is beautifully projected. Rustic evocations of the hurdy-gurdy are conjured in the third movement’s central Trio, although I would have liked more of the carefree spirit in the outer sections shown to advantage by the Prague String Quartet. If the Albions are just a tad polite here, their performance goes up a notch in the finale where the ‘orchestral’ sonorities are relished, playing now more characterful and resolute, will ‘o the wisp tone too and, at times, Waley-Cohen’s tantalizing tone barely audible.
A lowering of pitch (E major to E flat major) brings no drop in mood, although the initial bars of Opus 51 (begun on Christmas Day, 1878) sound as if we’ve exchanged melancholy for poignancy. That’s largely due to the melting warmth the Albions bring to this genial work and flowing rather more so than the sturdy (and four minutes longer) account from the Talich Quartet. Yet Dvořák’s lofty sensibility is revealed in all its finery, conjuring wood smoke and azure skies as gentle contours unfold with gratifying ease. Waley-Cohen adds sweetness of tone and poetic sensitivity, directing though never overshadowing and savouring expressive nuances. I particularly enjoy her dainty portamento at the start of the second movement Dumka and the players’ fleet-footed glee in faster passages that sparkle as if summoning Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The Romanza brings a deepening of emotions in whispered intimacies, ethereal pianissimos and playing of noble beauty, while the closing Skocna shows the Albion at their unbuttoned best, if not throwing caution to the wind, but letting their collective hair down with wild abandon.
These performances are models of refinement, every phrase perfectly manicured, every accent scrupulously observed, but just occasionally missing a sense of unvarnished rusticity. That said, I look forward to their Dvořák exploration with interest. Clear sound and comprehensive booklet notes come as standard.