Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quartet in D, Op. 23 (1875) [34:31]
Piano Quartet in E-flat, Op. 87 (1889) [36:30]
Helena Suchárová-Weiser (piano)
Members of the Vlach Quartet Prague
rec. Lobkowitz Palace, Prague, August 2008. DDD
NAXOS 8.572159 [71:11]

These captivating performances are a salutary reminder that, while Dvořák's chamber music is readily accessible to musicians and listeners alike, it uniquely blossoms when performed by native Czech performers - and, as we shall see, by their well-trained fellow-travelers - who bring it an intuitive sense of expressive phrasing and an understanding of its various components.

The D major quartet's opening theme, the first thing we hear, underscores the point. It includes a hiccough of a syncopation: hit it too hard, and it impedes the motion; underplay it, and it's just a distraction. These players articulate it within the overall arch of the phrase, so the rhythmic gesture intensifies the forward impulse as it should.

Such felicities abound in these performances. The players launch all the cantabile phrases with a sure sense of their broad, arching shape. The waltzlike passages - the 6/8 variations of the D major's central movement, the Allegretto scherzando of its Finale, and the third movement of the E-flat - go with a lovely lilt and swing, and carry an authentic, open-hearted lyricism.

The D major quartet is formally rather interesting. It begins with a fully-fledged Allegro moderato sonata movement, fifteen minutes long. There follows a lovely eleven-minute Andantino with five variations. The seven-minute Finale begins with the brief Allegretto scherzando cited before heading into an Allegro agitato, thus encompassing elements of both a scherzo and a conventional finale. The structure looks as off-balance in the track-listing as it undoubtedly sounds in this description, but in fact the two latter movements constitute a plausible counterweight to the first. The four-movement E-flat quartet shows Beethoven's influence. The themes are no less fetching than in the earlier work, but they lend themselves more readily to "symphonic" working-out and development, and the whole leaves an impression of greater weight and importance.

Of the players, I was particularly taken by cellist Mikael Ericcson - who, I imagine, is probably not a native Czech - whose dusky, deep tone provides special pleasure on the numerous melodic phrases the composer supplies. At the piano, Helena Suchárová-Weiser spins out pearly, articulate passagework with full tonal weight and "support", and her well-balanced chords ring out. Violinist Jana Vlachová never quite soars as one wants; her tone is thinner and her articulation less meticulous than ideal. But she's a stylish and effective player, and violist, Karel Stadtherr, produces a tone sufficiently darker than hers to render their sounds easily distinguishable.

The engineers capture just enough hall resonance to enhance the beautiful playing, but not so much as to obscure it. One would have expected to find this sort of release on an expensive, imported Supraphon disc, where it still would have been a must-buy; at Naxos prices, it's absolutely a steal.

Stephen Francis Vasta

Beautiful playing … at Naxos prices an absolute steal