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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quintet in G major, Op. 77, B.49 (1875, rev. 1888) [32:42]
Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, B.155 (1877) [38:30]
Škampa Quartet: (Pavel Fischer (violin); Jana Lukášová (violin); Radim Sedmidubský (viola); Lukáš Polák (cello)); Laurène Durantel (double-bass) (Op. 77); Kathryn Stott (piano) (Op. 81)
rec. 6, 8 January (Op.77); 18-19, 21 March 2007 (Op.81), Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic. DDD

SUPRAPHON SU 3909-2 [71:26]

The Supraphon label has yet again turned to Antonín Dvořák for this disc of two excellent chamber music scores performed by the Škampa Quartet of Prague. The recording was made in 2007 at one of the label’s favourite locations the Rudolfinum in Prague

I have seen this exciting quartet several times in recital over the last few years and have been grateful to have been able to monitor their progress at first-hand. Without doubt they have developed into one of the finest ensembles on the international music scene. The Škampas are frequent visitors to Britain and I have attended two of their concerts already this year. Coincidentally, this very weekend I saw them again in recital giving a remarkable performance of Janáček’s String Quartet No.2 Intimate letters’ in Kendal as part of Lake District Summer Music.

Since the Italian Quartet (Quartetto Italiano) disbanded in 1980 the established heavyweights, despite occasional personnel changes, have dominate the chamber music world for some decades, namely the Emerson, Talich, Takács, Quatuor Mosaïques, Borodin, Kodály, Trio Fontenay, Beaux Arts et al. In recent years the dynamics of the chamber music scene have been altering with the split-up in 2005 of the renowned Lindsay Quartet and the intention of the distinguished Alban Berg Quartet to cease performing in 2008. There are now a handful of elite ensembles currently on the music scene that I have seen go from strength to strength. In recent years these have progressed from ‘talented newcomers’ to ‘masters of their trade’. In addition to the gifted Škampas I would also include as world class performers their contemporaries, the Henschel, Belcea, Pacifica and relative newcomers the Pavel Haas Quartet.

Originally a five movement work the String Quintet in G major from 1875 was entered into a competition entitled ‘My People’. Subsequently the second movement the Intermezzo (Notturno) was removed from the work and is often performed separately in versions for string quartet or string orchestra. An unusual feature of the score is the inclusion of a double bass that provides additional richness.

On this recording of the Quintet the Škampa are augmented by the services of double-bass player Laurène Durantel. The French-born musician studied at the Paris Conservatoire and is a member of the Toulouse National Orchestra. In addition, I have seen her perform in chamber recital as a member of Ensemble 360.

The Škampas provide breezy and buoyant playing in the opening movement marked allegro con fuoco. It just bursts with attractive and contrasting melodies and ideas. There’s energetic and rhythmic playing with restless scurrying in the Scherzo where Dvořák makes free with Slavic folkdance elements. The central section has a more subdued character to provide a marvellous contrast. Overflowing with melody the third movement Poco andante with its distinctive and gentle rocking theme is lovingly played with tenderness and great appeal. It is hard to imagine a better performance of the slow movement than this and I especially loved the innately sensitive interplay between the instruments. In Rondo form the light-hearted mood of the final Allegro assai is accorded sparkling and fresh-toned reading.

I am able to recommend two fine recordings of the String Quintet, Op. 77 that would sit agreeably in any chamber music collection. From 2000 in Prague the energetic and convincing account from the Vlach Quartet, Prague with double bassist Jakub Waldmann on Naxos 8.555378 c/w Intermezzo, B.49, Four Drobnosti, Op.75a and Andante appassionato, B.40a. I also admire the 2004 London account from the Nash Ensemble with double bassist Duncan McTier for its vivacity and confidence on ASV Gold GLD 4011 c/w String Sextet, Op.48 and Intermezzo for strings, B.49.

The substantial and joyous Piano Quintet, Op. 81 completed in 1887 is composed in the Slavic idiom that pervades so many of Dvořák’s best works. It was written before his extended stay in the United States of America. Biographer John Clapham writes that this Quintet, "probably epitomizes more completely the genuine Dvořák style in most of its facets than any other work of his."

The Škampa are joined on this recording of the Piano Quintet, Op. 81 by English-born pianist Kathryn Stott, a celebrated and popular soloist in her prime. I recently heard Kathryn Stott play the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major at a concert in the north of England in a performance that made a considerable impression. Her acclaimed 2001 Potton Hall recording of Les Heures Persanes by Charles Koechlin on Chandos CHAN 9974 remains a particular favourite from my piano music collection.

The Piano Quintet opens with a good-natured Allegro, a movement greatly infused with the bucolic character of Bohemian folk music. The Škampas are highly convincing here where the tempi cannot settle and fluctuate in an unsettling manner, concluding with dazzling bravura. The second movement titled Dumka is evidently based on a ballad that originated in the Ukraine. I loved the playing of the mournful viola melody and the way the group communicate that undercurrent of melancholy. Again steeped in Bohemian folk music the Scherzo is a Furiant in which the Škampas gallop along with great vivacity. In the Finale, a syncopated Allegro in the form of a Rondo, the players provide outstanding playing that balances nostalgia with an underlying seriousness. Making a perfect collaboration, Kathryn Stott’s part is memorable especially for her sensitivity and refinement brought to bear on Dvořák’s inventiveness and lyricism.

From the large number of available recordings of the Piano Quintet, Op. 81 my first choice is the evergreen 1962 Vienna account from pianist Clifford Curzon and the Vienna Philharmonic String Quartet led by Willi Boskovsky. Spirited and highly persuasive this is classic chamber music playing of the highest quality. It is available digitally remastered on Decca 448 602-2 c/w the Schubert Trout Quintet, D667. Another marvellous version is the fresh and vital recording made circa 1993 by the Talich Quartet with pianist Kazuko Mimura. The recording is available as part of a 3 disc box from Calliope Cal 3229.1 c/w Dvořák String Quintet, Op. 97, String Quartets, Op. 61, 96 ‘American’, 105 and 106. In addition I remain an admirer of the 2003 Bad Arolsen account from the Leipzig String Quartet with pianist Christian Zacharias for their assured and committed performance on MDG 307 1249-2 c/w Dvořák String Quintet, Op. 97. Another fine version is from the Takács with pianist Andreas Haefliger who together blend passion with vitality on their 1998 Potton Hall recording. I have the account on a single disc on Decca 466 197-2 c/w Dvořák String Quartet No. 10 and also as part of a four disc set titled Takács Quartet, A Celebration on Decca 476 280-2 c/w Haydn String Quartet, Op. 76/3 ‘Emperor’, Mozart Serenade for strings, KV 525 ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’, Beethoven String Quartet, Op. 18/5, Dvořák Five Bagatelles, Op. 47 and String Quartet in F major, Op. 96 ‘American’, Smetana String Quartet No. 1 From my Life’, Borodin String Quartet No. 2, Wolf Italian Serenade for String Quartet, Schubert String Quintet, D.956 and Bartók String Quartet No. 4, Sz 91.

Recorded at the Rudolfinum in Prague the Supraphon engineers have here achieved a first class sound. The presentation is enhanced by high standard booklet notes. For those looking for a single disc that couples both the Dvořák String Quintet, Op. 77 and the Piano Quintet, Op. 81 this excellent recording makes a confident choice.

Michael Cookson


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