Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet in E flat, Op. 51
String Quartet in A flat, Op. 105
Alban Berg Quartet
Recorded live in the Mozartsaal Konzerthaus, Vienna May and June 1999 DDD
EMI CLASSICS CDC5 57013 2 9 [62:58]
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As one would expect from the Alban Berg Quartet this live performance offers much to marvel at in the sheer precision of the playing allied with a beauty and depth of tone which is present throughout. Every bar has been thought through in detail, every note has been studied. Yet paradoxically this is where, for this listener at least, these performances do not quite live up to the many listeners' high expectations. The disappointment is in the spontaneity of the performance, that rush of adrenaline that we crave and which, in the modern pursuit of perfection, can often be lost in studio conditions yet which one hopes can be captured in a live recording such as this.

This factor struck me most clearly in the opening Allegro non troppo of the E flat quartet. There is some beautifully delicate playing here, yet, after the initial bars, the allegro proper shows a slight feeling of restraint that has the unfortunate effect of holding the music back. The Dumka that follows fares better. There is considerable character here as well as a spirit that is not always evident in the outer movements. The Andante con moto also has some truly lovely moments yet once again the final Allegro assai, in spite of its admirably taut ensemble, somehow failed to convince me overall.

Of the two works it is the Op. 105 quartet of 1895 which receives the more committed performance. Dvorák wrote the first movement whilst still in America, only completing the work upon his return to Bohemia, with an interruption caused by work on his Op. 106 quartet which was completed in between. The first movement is finely played with the turbulent Allegro appassionato which follows the introductory Adagio being particularly well captured (try the fiery passage from around 3'40"). There is real character and spirit in the playing here which does not come across in the earlier work. The Molto vivace also shows that the players can find the Czech spirit in the music and a sense of the exhilaration which the composer must surely have felt upon his return to his homeland. The touching Lento e molto cantabile is notable for some subtle touches of contrast both dynamically and emotionally. The substantial final Allegro non tanto is slightly less effective although the gradual build up to the breathless conclusion is superbly paced.

There is both charm and beauty in these performances and I would not discourage anyone from exploring this for themselves and forming their own judgement. That said, a greater degree of vitality and unashamed abandon in performance, particularly in the Op. 51 quartet, would have made this a truly memorable disc as opposed to simply a good one.

Christopher Thomas

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