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Bedrich SMETANA (1824-84)
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, ‘From my life’ (1876) [27’07].
Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)

String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (1893) [21’08].. Waltzes, Op. 54 (1888) – No. 1 in A [3’25]; No. 4 in D [2’37].
Oskar NEDBAL (1874-1930)

The Tale of Honza – Valse triste [3’59].
Karel PROCHÁZKA (1878-1947)

String Quartet in F – Scherzo [3’24].
Ševcík-Lhotský String Quartet (Bohuslav Lhotský, Karel Procházka, violins; Karel Moravec, viola; František Pour, cello).

Rec 1929.
From Czech HMV AN326/9 (Smetana); AN332/4 (Dvořák Quartet); AN2227 (Dvořák Waltzes); AN331 (Nedbal and Proházka). [ADD]
In a recent review for the Seen & Heard section of MusicWeb, I wrote of the Alban Berg’s notable reading of Smetana’s first quartet. Now here is a recording dating from way back in 1929 by a string quartet which first played together in Lvov in 1901 (i.e. over a hundred years ago) as the Czech Quartet of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1905 to 1930 they formed an integrated group, giving their last concert in Slovakia in March 1930.

Their account screams authenticism and dedication from every note. The intensity of the viola solo in the first movement penetrates the crackle, survives the somewhat wavery pitch and emerges from the hiss to make a deep emotional impression. There is a beautiful sense of flow and inevitability to the whole experience. Problems do arise in the second movement, admittedly (scrappy and approximate at times), but the dance character is maintained and later on, rhythms become infectious.

It is the final two movements that form the dramatic climax to this piece, with its horrible and visceral depiction of the composer’s tinnitus. There is no mistaking the drama and pathos of this event here (around the 3’50 mark).

Why there is a mere few seconds gap between the two major items on this disc remains a mystery, then. Dvořák’s brightness bursts onto the unaware listener, and it takes a few moments to readjust. Still, once that adjustment has been made, together with a second necessary adjustment for the plethora of portamenti, there is no doubt that the melancholy-saturated melodies create their full emotive impact. Portamenti, perhaps predictably, reach their climax in the Lento, but it contributes towards an expressive climax resulting from the players’ respect for the music’s natural pace and their willingness to give it space to breathe. The final two movements have a most approachable spring in their step.

The listener is given a veritable treasure-trove of ‘encores’. The ethos of the two Dvořák Waltzes is perfectly caught, as is their sense of fun. Dvořák certainly upstages Oskar Nedbal’s rather syrupy, soupy specimen, where the portamento disease reaches epidemic proportions (be warned: to a modern pair of ears this may easily sound like parody). Nedbal was a pupil of Dvořák’s at the Prague Conservatory and became the violist in the Czech Quartet (1891-1906) and conductor of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra (1896-1906). The waltz comes from one of his operettas (he also wrote ballets). Mercifully, it only lasts for four minutes, before the quartet moves on to the Scherzo by the quartet’s own viola player. It is sprightly and full of daylight, exactly the type of piece this quartet seems to excel at.

Very strongly recommended, then. The musical qualities far outshine the concessions one might have to make for the condition of the original sound sources and the pitch variations. And don’t forget that there is much fun to be had here, too!.

Colin Clarke

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