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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartets – No. 12 in F, Op. 96/B179, 'American' (1893) [25'55]; No. 10 in E flat, Op. 51/B92 (1878/9) [31'21]. Cypresses, B152 (1887) - No. 1, I know that on my love to thee [3'42]; No. 2, In many a heart is death [2'38]; No. 3, In the sweet power of your eyes [2'31]; No. 11, Nature is held in light sleep [2'16].
Australian String Quartet (Natsuko Yoshimoto, James Cuddeford, violins; Jeremy Williams, viola; Niall Brown, cello).
Rec. Elder Hall, University of Adelaide on October 4th-7th, 2004. DDD
ABC CLASSICS 476 7741 [68'30]

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This all-Dvořák disc opens with one of the most famous of that composer's string quartets, the so-called 'American', Op. 96. The ASQ brings a fair amount of life to the piece - especially in the dancing strains of the third movement molto vivace. Rhythms are good and crisp. The recording strikes me as too close, however.

The slow movement is quite intense, with excellent soloistic work. The main distraction here, however, is the plonky pizzicato cello, which emerges as dull and lifeless. Given its frequent occurrence, this becomes very distracting. The final two movements are the most successful, the rustic third movement dancing its way along and the finale being imbued with a fair amount of energy. To the ASQ's credit, they do not try to make the buzzing, generative textures sound quasi-orchestral.

The E flat quartet begins in great good humour. There is much relaxation here, and the ASQ seems to react to this well yet without undue indulgence. The Dumka second movement (subtitled Elegie) is most suavely dispatched. Communication between the quartet members is at a high level. Timbrally they balance superbly. Apparently it was this movement that impressed Brahms so much, and it is easy to hear why.  The third movement is marked 'Romanza'. It includes some rather impassioned sections – well played here – before the finale (an Allegro assai) bounces onto the scene.

The Four Cypresses act as well-deserved encores. The original set of 18 were songs, essentially love songs from the composer to a beloved. There is certainly real warmth of affection here in the ASQ's accounts of four of the composer's 1887 quartet arrangements. The first violin's tenderness on the first (''I know that on my love to thee') is particularly affecting, a trait continued in the second ('In many a heart is death'). No. 11, the final Cypress we hear, provides an upliftingly jolly close to a most enjoyable disc.

Booklet notes (by Vincent Plush) are a model of their kind. Informed and wide-ranging, they form a perfect introduction to the chamber music of this very special composer.

Colin Clarke







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