Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Old World - New World
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major Op. 51, B. 92 (1878/9) [32:03]
String Quartet No. 11 in C major, Op. 61, B. 121 (1881) [39:06]
String Quintet No. 3 in E flat major ‘American’ Op. 97, B. 180 (1893) [32:37]
12 Cypresses arranged for string quartet, B. 152 (arr. 1887) [32:42]
String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106, B. 192 (1895) [37:06]
String Quartet No. 14 in A flat major, Op. 105, B. 193 (1895) [31:48]
Emerson String Quartet (Eugene Drucker (violin I) (Opp. 51, 97, Cypresses 7-12) and violin II); Philip Setzer (violin I) (Opp. 61, 105, 106, Cypresses 1-6) and violin II); Lawrence Dutton (viola); David Finckel (cello); Paul Neubauer (viola) (Quintet, Op. 97))
rec. December 2008, 2, 4, 6, 9-10 December 2009, American Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC, USA. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 8765 [3 CDs: 71:18 + 65:28 + 69:03]
Dvořák composed some of these scores during his exile in the USA and others in his home city of Prague; hence the set title. We are told in the booklet notes that the Emerson have never recorded any of these works before. With such a theme it feels like an oversight not to have included the popular String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96, B. 179 (1893) known as the ‘American’ as it would have sat perfectly within this collection. The Emerson have in fact already recorded the score.
Few composers can match the Bohemia-born Dvořák’s emphasis on melodic invention and sparkling lyricism. This is coupled with a rich and individual coloration often deeply rooted in his native Slavic folk music.
The first disc opens with the earliest completed work here the String Quartet No. 10 from 1878/9. Brahms had by then become a staunch champion of Dvořák. Earlier in 1876 the great German composer had written a letter of recommendation to the publisher Simrock. The E flat major Quartet, B. 92 was composed in response to a commission for a “Slavonic” work from Jean Becker the founder and leader of the Florentine Quartet. For this reason the score is sometimes called the ‘Slavonic’. Only a short time later, in 1881, Dvořák wrote his String Quartet No. 11 for the Viennese Quartet led by its founder Josef Hellmesberger Sr.
Disc two commences with one of Dvořák’s best known chamber works the String Quintet No. 3 in E flat major ‘American’. This specifies an extra viola and was written in 1893 during his three year stay in the United States working at the New York National Music Conservatory. Dvořák holidayed at the Bohemian colony at Spillville, Iowa and there his writing became inspired both by African-American spirituals and by ritual music of the Native Americans. Sister works to the ‘American’ Quintet that were also composed during his stay in the USA include the String Quartet No. 12 ‘American’ and the Symphony No. 9 ‘New World’.
The 12 Cypresses for string quartet, B. 152 originate from 1865 when as a young man Dvořák composed a set of love songs based on the work of the Moravian poet Gustav Pfleger-Moravský. He arranged twelve of the songs in 1887 as string quartet movements; the title Cypresses was conferred at the time of their publication in 1921. Unfortunately in the booklet the titles are not given.
The third disc of the set has Dvořák’s two final quartets both completed in 1895 after returning to work at the Prague Conservatory. The String Quartet No. 13 took Dvořák only a few weeks to write. A frequently overlooked masterwork of the genre the String Quartet No. 14 had been started in New York and was completed in Prague. Overshadowed by the enduring popularity of the ‘American’ Quartet it is a shame that these two quartets are not played as often as their quality deserves.
Formed in 1976 the award-winning New York City-based Emerson Quartet use traditional modern strung instruments. It seems a pointless exercise to go through the performances of each quartet movement individually as the Emerson maintain throughout an impressive and consistent standard of playing in a way that few other quartets could achieve. With fine musicianship the players handle the challenges of the varying emotional depth and meter of the scores with accomplishment. I noted that they eschew any temptation unnecessarily to exaggerate dynamics. In the ‘American’ Quintet violist Paul Neubauer fits in seamlessly with the group. I never felt any lack of emotional attachment; an unfair criticism sometimes levelled at this elite group. Their technical command and precision is legendary and their tone has been closely recorded to great advantage by the DG engineers. It would be hard to imagine these scores played better.