Schubert Ensemble – Dvořák’s Piano Quartet & Piano Quintet [Chandos]

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Piano Quartet No.2 in E flat, Op.87
Piano Quintet No.2 in A, Op.81*
Gypsy Songs, Op.55 – IV: Songs My Mother Taught Me [arr. for piano quartet by the Schubert Ensemble]

Recorded 28-30 November 2011 at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK

Schubert Ensemble [Simon Blendis & Alexandra Wood* (violins), Douglas Paterson (viola), Jane Salmon (cello) & William Howard (piano)]

Reviewed by: Tully Potter

Reviewed: May 2012
Duration: 77 minutes



Before I get to the specifics of this outstanding release, it may be instructive to view the historical terrain, as Dvořák’s chamber music has been subjected to more well-meant, stylistically off-beam recordings than most.

Unlike Smetana, Dvořák was not a natural writer for the piano – witness his Piano Concerto – and even the best Czech pianists will tell you that his music does not lie naturally under the fingers; but a performer willing to submerge him- or her-self in the style can achieve wonderful effects. After a stopgap version on the NGS label, the first international recording of the Piano Quintet (we knew only one such work in those days) was to have been made for HMV by Rudolf Serkin and the Busch Quartet, who specialised in it; but in-house rival label Columbia nipped in with a pleasant but mediocre version by Olga Loeser-Lebert and the Léner Quartet. When HMV did get round to it, the work was given to Artur Schnabel and the Quatuor Pro Arte, none of whom showed any understanding of it. The marvellous 78rpm recording by Jan Heřman and the Ondříček Quartet had relatively limited circulation, until amazingly it popped up on an American LP. An Italian LP version on Decca continued the misunderstandings, as did Curzon/Budapest and Edith Farnadi/Barylli. LP buyers who invested in the cheaper recordings of Opuses 81 and 87 with the Winterthur Quartet, including Czech players, did rather better.

The first all-Czech version of Opus 81 made specifically for LP, by Jan Panenka and the Smetana Quartet, set a new standard – the string-players went on to re-do the Quintet in stereo with Pavel Štěpán and digitally with Panenka again – and DG had a good version by Eva Bernáthová and the Janáček Quartet. Yet stylistically undercooked recordings persisted: Curzon/VPO, Kovacevich/BPO, the superb Firkušný mismatched with the Juilliard Quartet (who did better in the Piano Quartets), and two live versions by Richter and the Borodin Quartet.

Fortunately in recent years the pendulum has swung towards style-consciousness, although the fashion has been to couple the two Piano Quartets and the two Piano Quintets. Firkušný re-did Opus 81 with the Ridge Quartet and there have been fine Klanský/Pražák and Kubálek/Lafayette versions. Both Piano Quartets have been convincingly done by the four Josefs – Hála, Suk, Koďousek and Chuchro – and the Martinů Piano Quartet. The present coupling of Opuses 81 and 87 has been treated royally by an all-star Czech line-up, including Josef Suk III, and by András Schiff with the Panocha Quartet.

The significance of this Chandos disc by the Schubert Ensemble of London is that it contains the first recordings of these works by non-Czech players to challenge the Czechs on their own ground. Both performances compare with the best. It is not entirely surprising: the pianist and spiritus rector of the group, William Howard, has long specialised in Czech music and several Czech composers have written works for him. He pays minute attention to note values – Firkušný told me that Dvořák once admonished a famous pianist: “A sixteenth note is a sixteenth note!”. Howard also gets the essential Dvořákian crispness into his playing; and he and his colleagues get the rhythms right. With Dvořák, as with Tchaikovsky, we are never far from the dance, but his rhythms are far more specific than the Russian’s. Consider the third movement of Opus 87, a quasi-scherzo ostensibly in 3/4 but full of rhythmic subtleties. When one has had to listen to so many of the professional but generalised recordings listed above, hearing the Schubert Ensemble’s attention to detail is like seeing two beloved paintings carefully cleaned and newly framed.

The most important aspect of these two performances is that they sound so spontaneous, vital with a composer who so often changes tempo. Transitions are seamless and rhythms explode where they should explode, or shade into each other where that is appropriate. The players take quite a firm line at the start of the Piano Quintet, while still allowing the individual string soloists sufficient relaxation for their solos. They observe the exposition repeat. In the development they play very sensitively, with a good dynamic range, yet never lose touch with the tempo primo; and they broaden out nicely at climaxes. Their tempo for the opening of the ‘Dumka’ is excellent and they play very beautifully, moving nicely into the first faster section. The Vivace passage really dances and the further sections are superbly handled. The scherzo’s rhythms irresistibly and its trio (Poco tranquillo) also dances, in a more ethereal way. The finale, one of Dvořák’s finest, has inevitability about it in this performance: it’s joyous even in the nifty passage of counterpoint, where Dvořák shows that he can be learned while delighting his listeners. The yearning passage (Tranquillo, poco sostenuto) before the coda is lovely.

The disc starts with the Piano Quartet, a work which is more strenuous at times but is also full of the lyricism that makes the Piano Quintet so much loved. The players are quite forceful but very precise at the opening and they provide terrific playing throughout the first movement, with transitions well-handled – Dvořák does not ask for an exposition repeat. Even when the music is at its most delicate in the development, there are little dancing figures to entrance the ear. The Lento, rich in thematic material, is beautifully done and very passionate in its central section. The third movement almost seems to reverse the usual state of affairs in a scherzo, as the outer sections are gentle and the central section tenser. Both it and the finale dance to complete a model interpretation.

As an encore, the members of the Schubert Ensemble have arranged Dvořák’s best-known song for piano quartet. It starts with Howard’s Steinway and, after some lovely string-playing, fades into nothingness.

The recordings, produced by Jeremy Hayes and engineered by Jonathan Cooper, are relatively close but good. If memory serves, I have mentioned before, in connection with this team’s work, that I prefer a slightly firmer cello line. But I am not going to make a Federal case out of it. The excellent notes are by Dvořák scholar Graham Melville-Mason. Why not throw out some of the equivocal recordings I have mentioned above, and get this one instead?

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