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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
The String Quintets, volume 2
String Quintet in G major, opus 77 (34:05)
Intermezzo (Notturno), from B. 19 (4:16)
Drobmosti (Miniatures), op. 75a (13:02)
Andante appassionato in F major, B. 40a (6:02)
Vlach Quartet Prague
Jana Vlachová, violin I, Karel Stadtherr, violin II, Petr Verna, viola, Mikael Ericsson, cello, Jakub Waldmann, double bass (op. 77)
Recorded January-October 2000 in the Martinek Studios, Prague. DDD
NAXOS 8.555378 [57:35]
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The music of Czech composer Antonín Dvorák is, in my opinion, every bit as consistent as that of Johannes Brahms, his contemporary and artistic benefactor. Of course, he is famous for his “New World” symphony and the Slavonic Dances, but some of his finest and most appealing work lies in the large body of chamber music that he contributed to the repertoire. This excellent recital by the Vlach Quartet Prague with guest bassist Jakub Waldmann presents us with a splendid diamond (the opus 77 quintet) set amongst a lovely array of smaller gems.

Born about forty miles north of Prague, Dvořák was the eldest son of a butcher and innkeeper. Fate might have had him taking on his father’s trade were the elder Dvořák not himself an amateur musician who recognized young Antonín’s exceptional talent early on. After primary schooling in his hometown he moved in with his uncle in Zlonice where he would acquire the necessary knowledge of German to allow him admission into the Organ School in Prague; he studied there from 1857-1859. He would go on to play viola in the Czech Provisional Theatre Orchestra, which was conducted for a time by Bedrich Smetana. In 1871, he would resign his post to pursue composition full time.

An application for an award from the Austrian government in 1874 brought Dvořák’s music to the attention of the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, and later of Johannes Brahms who was a member of the jury. The granting of this award for five consecutive years was of great financial assistance to the budding composer, and its prestige was sufficient to enable Brahms to convince the publisher Simrock to issue some of Dvořák’s music to the broader public. In 1891, he would be appointed professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory, and in the summer of the same year, American philanthropist and arts patron Jeannette Thurber saw to his invitation to head the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Some of Dvořák’s most famous music was composed in the United States, including the American string quartet and the ninth symphony. He returned to Prague to resume his post at the conservatory in 1895, becoming director in 1901. He remained in the post until his death in 1904.

The opus 77 quintet for strings was completed in 1875. Originally in five movements, Simrock’s misleading opus number makes it seem a more mature work than it is. The Vlach with Mr. Waldmann give us a fine if not perhaps too careful performance here. I found that tempi were a bit overly cautious, particularly in the delightful second movement scherzo, which to my ears pleads to be played with a good deal more giusto. The melodies, so reminiscent of a rollicking folk dance, lack the confidence and panache of a carefree celebration in this subdued rendition. That quibble aside, there is little to criticize in the meticulously phrased and flawlessly tuned playing of this ensemble. They particularly shine in the lyrical third movement where singing melodies and a lovely balance of voices rule the day.

Perhaps the most appealing music in this program is not the major work, but the little gems that follow it. The Intermezzo (also widely known in its version for violin and piano known as Notturno) is simply gorgeous and is lovingly played here. The gentle Drobnosti, or miniatures, were written for a friend of Dvořák’s. An amateur violinist, Dvořák originally wrote his famous Terzetto for two violins and viola for his chemist friend. When the earlier work proved too technically difficult for his non-professional companion, he created these splendid little pearls.  They are played here to perfection, each splendid melody presented with wit, charm and warmth.  

Naxos recording is on the money, with a good balance and warm bloom to the sound. The musicians do indulge in a bit of audible sniffing and snorting which is a bit of a distraction, but it is not so obnoxious that it spoils the program. Notes by Keith Anderson are informative and interesting. This is a worthy addition to any library, particularly for the shorter pieces.

Kevin Sutton


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