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The Smetana Quartet
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

String Quartet No. 1 in F major Op.18 No.1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

String Quartet No.20 in D major K499
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)

String Quartet No.1 in E minor From My Life
The Smetana Quartet
Recorded BBC Studios, Manchester, January 1963 (Beethoven) and Royal Festival Hall, London, June 1965 (Mozart and Smetana)
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4137-2 [77.40]


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A decade after their official formation in Prague in 1945 the Smetana Quartet made their British debut with two works featured on this BBC disc: Mozart’s D major and Beethoven’s F major Op.18 No.1 quartets. When they returned in 1956 it was with a new violist, Milan Škampa, and renewed success. There were repeated return visits until their eventual disbandment in 1989. These BBC tapings derive from a studio broadcast in the Manchester studios in 1963 and a concert at the Royal Festival Hall two years later. They demonstrate all their expected and most admired virtues.

Their Beethoven has a pliant and flexible first movement and some expressive intonation from leader Jiří Novák along with his characteristic sweetness of tone. The most distinguished playing falls in this second movement. Elsewhere, though their rhythmic snap is impressive, it’s their corporate command of variety of mood that sets their playing apart. The Mozart is a delight from beginning to end. The incisive accents of the Allegretto sway deliciously and yet all strands are concisely in place – remember the Smetana always played from memory. They take the Adagio at a well-sustained tempo and the Allegro finale is full of the utmost clarity of expression and tonal homogeneity. Novák was one of the great Mozart players of his time and his colleagues are no less persuasive; that is impressively evident here. Many will be familiar with their recordings of the Smetana E minor but evidence of "on the wing" performances is always instructive and exciting. The opening movement is taut and dramatic and they take the Polka second movement at a firm clip – bustly in a word - and accelerandi and slowings down are executed with infectious naturalness and control. As ever, their understanding of the Largo is unimpeachable. Comparison with their Brno rivals, the Janáček Quartet, shows that the Prague players were always that bit tighter, rhythmically, and that they tended to take a subtler faster tempo throughout all four movements. The slow movement is vested with remarkable fluid intensity, speeding up, coiling into turmoil and then relaxing and generating an inherent rhythmic unstoppability (see the winding inexorability of cellist Antonín Kohout’s pizzicati). The finale is movingly realised.

In the light of their popularity in Britain I hope the BBC will be devoting more releases to this august group. And if it’s too much to hope that their performances of more esoteric repertoire may have been preserved (though who wouldn’t want to catch the performances they gave of the Bax Oboe Quintet or Britten’s Second Quartet?) let’s hope that whatever we get will come soon – and often.

Jonathan Woolf

 



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