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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 14 in A flat Major Op.105 B.193 (1895) [32.45]
Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major Op.81 B.155 (1887) [41.33]
Psophos Quartet
Dana Ciocarlie (piano)
rec. Auditorium ADAC, Place Nationale, Paris, 5-8 June 2006. DDD
AR-RE-SE AR 2006-2 [74.45]

Founded in 1999 the Psophos Quartet (Psophos meaning ‘sonic event’) and Dana Ciocarlie are pictured on the front of the CD booklet. They are an all-female group based mainly in France. Whilst listening to this CD my wife looked at the booklet and said "You won’t be making any feminist comments will you about how gracefully they play or how delicate their performances are". "Of course not, my dear." I nervously responded. However I have to say that they do play gracefully, and passionately and delicately and forcefully. Indeed they play the music, the notes on the page, whatever is required and for me, at least, that is a very strong starting point.

Although begun in New York, Dvořák’s last quartet, a serene valedictory work, should be seen also as a farewell to his American experience, where he had lived from 1891 to 1895. As Nicholas Southon’s booklet notes remind us, Dvořák’s sojourn in America, although musically immensely beneficial, was not an especially happy experience for him and his wife. This quartet however seems to be delighting in the air of Bohemia once again and that is where he completed the work. Delight is tempered by the voice of experience and there is little of the naivety which is sometimes a criticism of Dvořák’s middle period. I realize that naivety may be a little controversial however.

Chamber music plays a huge part in Dvořák’s output. This quartet is in the usual four movements with a light furiant with its little shifts of rhythmic accents as its second one. The finale is the longest - an Allegro with a somewhat indecisive formal layout. The end is luminous and joyous and brings Dvořák’s chamber music career to a happy conclusion.

The A major Piano Quintet dates from 1887, a happy period for the composer just before writing the beautiful and typically Czech Eighth Symphony. This work has many attractive melodies and characteristic features, such as the wonderful tune of the slow movement. This he perhaps over-eggs a little before embarking on a livelier middle section. There is also the Scherzo third movement: another furiant. It is long work at almost forty-two minutes and the first movement weighs in at fifteen minutes. Large sonata-form structure is adopted with an especially complex development section.

I should at this point mention in a little more detail the booklet notes. If you take or have seen BBC Music Magazine you will know that the accompanying CD often comes with quite detailed analysis and timing indication points. Unusually so does this CD except even more so than the magazine. I found that I was hooked on the analysis which is helpful and revealing. Each movement is analyzed. The opening essay on Dvorak’s later career although interesting, I find annoying in that it has been written in, or possibly just translated into, the present tense.

It’s possible, because the disc is easily obtainable and cheap that you, like me, may well have the A flat Quartet coupled with the ‘American’ on Naxos 8.550251. It is a fine performance by the Moyzes Quartet - who of course come from Eastern Europe anyway. They take a more lyrical and slightly broader view of the work. The Psophos do not excel them interpretatively but the recording is beautifully mellow and nicely balanced. When it comes to the Piano Quintet I have for some time been drawn to a version by the Melos Quartet with pianist Karl Engel in a double album from Harmonia Mundi (HMX 2901509.10). Compared with the disc under review they are rhythmically more incisive and determined especially in the outer movements. In fact there are times when I wish they would relax and smile a little more. The slow movement is a little quicker and they have a great sense of the overall symphonic architecture of the work. The Psophos take, on this occasion, a more lyrical and gentle approach with less panache. They make each movement an end in itself. The second movement is very sensitively handled especially by pianist Ciocarlie. The tempo is however dangerously slow and after about four minutes it seems to drag. The finale I am sure should be a polka. The Melos have a greater sense of the dance in their version. In addition the Psophos are not served by such a good recording for this Quintet, the piano seeming somewhat distant and disengaged from the strings. Nevertheless I have enjoyed their easy-going and serene general approach.

As is usually the case there are good and not so good things about this new recording. Personally I shall keep this disc because despite some reservations, there is much to enjoy. Anyway, with great music it’s always good to have various opposing interpretations to hand.

Gary Higginson


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