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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Quintet in A major for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass D667 (1819)
Jan Panenka, piano and members of the Smetana Quartet: Jiří Novák, violin; Milan Škampa, viola; Antonín Kohout, cello with František Pošta, double bass
String Quartet No 12 in C minor, ‘Quartettsatz’ D 703 (1820)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

String Quartet no. 1 in F major, Op. 18 No.1 (1798-1800)
Smetana Quartet: Jiří Novák, violin; Lubomír Kostecky, violin; Milan Škampa, viola; Antonín Kohout, cello
Stereo: Digital Remastering. Schubert items recorded Domovina Studio, Prague, June 1960. Beethoven recorded Domovina Studio, Prague, May 1962
SUPRAPHON ARCHIV SU 3738-2 [75:01]

This CD is an unalloyed pleasure and only drops a point in deference to the age of its recording. The Smetana Quartet were renowned in their day as amongst the finest quartets in the world. Visits to the LP sales back in the 1960s always started by scouring the shelves for these Supraphon issues. Even though the pressings were not always of the best one was guaranteed a window on the world of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Smetana, Dvořák and Martinů through which their finest inspirations could pass as if direct from their own minds. It was with this memory that I listened first to the Beethoven Op.18 No.1. It was issued along with the Smetana Quartet’s equally revelatory performance of Op.95, but of course there was no room for that on this well filled CD. Hearing Op.18 No.1 was like coming home and the improvement wrought in the sound by issue on CD only brought greater pleasure. Though numbered ‘One’ it is no such thing, having been added to the set last, after revision. I still find this the best of the early quartets in its range and depth; it even hints at the late works.

Often, when listening to old Supraphon issues, I am struck by how beautifully natural the original recordings are. All that ever stood between listener and studio was those frequently rather dreadful pressings or, as often, the inferior playing equipment we used. (A modern "vinyl" replace system reveals that even Supraphon pressings were not always so terrible. Ask any modern LP collector and they will bore the pants off you with tales of "the red label Supraphons".)

But I digress. It is not that the performances are "straight" in the sense of being perfect renderings of text, that would lead to impressive but unmoving performances. The Smetanas are alive to musical nuance at every moment and there is a constant sense of rubato wherein these four seem to think as one without ever threatening the individual lines. Listen for example to the opening of the Scherzo, Allegro Molto, and focus on how 1st violin Jiří Novák and cellist Antonín Kohout play a sort of sublime duet within the texture. It is this sort of interplay that characterises all the performances. There is never any doubt that four or five individuals are contributing but they never sound to be in conflict. Another example of their clarity is the ease with which one can count through the variations in the Andantino of The Trout. One could almost teach variation form by ear with this rendering. In this piece too it is wonderful to hear the musical contribution from the double bass who comes over as part of the musical ensemble and not just a supporting bass line. Bassist František Pošta also joined the Dvořák Quartet players for a lovely performance of Dvořák’s String Quintet in G major issued during 1962. I wonder if anyone at Supraphon Archiv might be encouraged to reissue that, and put a picture of him in the booklet as he is missed out of this one.

Pianist Jan Panenka (no picture of him either) was always an underrated master of the classical repertoire. Schubert’s Trout calls upon his abilities as a player of melody since so little of the music is chordal, as it is in for example Schumann’s great Piano Quintet. He joins these great players as one of the team and the result is a well nigh perfect Trout. It has to be admitted that this piece in particular suffers from 1960s sound wherein the piano is a bit tinkly, but everything else is very clean and clear.

The Quartettsatz, which is all we ever hear of Schubert’s unfinished D 703 (he did write some of the slow movement), offers violinists Jiří Novák and Lubomír Kostecky a chance to play with a sweetness of tone that makes the dramatic contrasts with which the Quartettsatz is packed even more full of impact. The old recording is again a touch thin but in the face of these performances who cares? The Smetanas were touted by some as the best, it is not hard to understand why. An essential purchase.

Dave Billinge


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