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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No.11 in C, Op.61, B121 (1881) [37:27]
String Quartet No.12 in F, Op.96, B179, 'American' (1895) [26:00]
The Wihan Quartet (Leoš Čepický, Jan Schulmeister (violins); Jiří Žigmund (viola); Aleš Kaspřík (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, December 2004. DDD.
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI6114 [63:30]

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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet No.1 in A, Op.5, B28 (1872, rev.1887) [26:53]
Piano Quintet No.2 in A, Op.81, B155 (1887) [39:21]
Goldner String Quartet (Dene Olding, Dimity Hall (violins); Irina Morozova (viola); Julian Smiles (cello)); Piers Lane (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 15-17 April 2009. DDD
HYPERION CDA67805 [66:32]
Experience Classicsonline

These two recordings of Dvořák's chamber music arrived almost simultaneously and, by coincidence, both were recorded at Potton Hall, but there are other reasons why I am reviewing them together. The String Quartet No.12, the 'American', and the Second Piano Quintet are the best-known and most loved of Dvořák's chamber works, with some distinguished recordings in the catalogue. Both of the new CDs stand up well to the competition in terms of performance and recording, without quite becoming top recommendations, and both couple a familiar work with an unfamiliar one.

String Quartet No.11 is an attractive work, if a little long-winded by comparison with its better-known successor. The notes in the Nimbus booklet claim that it is the most significant of the quartets before the 'American', though there is also a strong case to be made for No.9. The Wihan Quartet are strong advocates for No.11: their fairly brisk tempo for the opening allegro movement shaves a minute and a half off the time taken by the Vlach Quartet on Naxos (8.553372, with Quartet No.8), thereby making it seem a little less over-long. The Vlach deserves its honoured place in the catalogue, especially at its budget price, but the Wihans offer a performance at least their equal. Both are available for streaming from the Naxos Music Library, so subscribers can compare for themselves.

Nevertheless, the opening of the 'American' takes us into a different world. It isn't just the familiarity of the work or the supposed use of Negro spirituals here and in the New World Symphony - in fact, recent commentators have concentrated on demonstrating the Czech nature of both works - right from the start the music grabs the listener's attention. Here, too, the Wihans offer a thoroughly idiomatic performance. Once again, their opening allegro ma non troppo is slightly faster than the Vlach Quartet (8.553371, with Quartet No.13); though I find it hard to choose between two such fine performances, I'm inclined to give the Wihans a slight preference here, too.

I'm going to reserve my final recommendation in this movement for a performance which almost exactly falls in the middle of the Wihan and Vlach timings: the Keller Quartet on a super-budget Warner Apex recording which couples the 'American' with another very attractive and popular work, Dvořák's String Quintet in E flat, Op.97 (0927 44355 2). Gwyn Parry-Jones described this as 'a most rewarding' disc, a view which I fully endorse - see review.

The Wihan Quartet give due emotional weight to the lento second movement without in any way over-sentimentalising it; here again, I give them a slight edge over the Vlach Quartet. The Kellers may seem on paper to take this movement rather fast, but they give it plenty of emotional weight, too, so I give them a slight edge over the Wihan and Vlach recordings.

I might have preferred a slightly greater degree of contrast from the Wihan Quartet between the juxtaposed emphatic and contemplative sections of the third movement. Perhaps, too, they could have taken a little more notice of the marking molto vivace, but they are only a few seconds slower overall than the Vlach Quartet and their overall times for the finale are exactly the same. The Kellers take both movements slightly faster than their rivals, which I think is to the music's advantage.

In individual movements, subjected to close comparison, there are swings and roundabouts between the Wihan Quartet and their rivals. As so often, though, playing each of these performances straight through on its own makes for an enjoyable listening experience. Once I had played the 'American', I couldn't turn off the Kellers' performance of the Quintet, but had to let it play through.

Choice of coupling and/or price may well decide: the Kellers at the lowest price, with the E-flat String Quintet; the Vlachs also inexpensive and coupled with another mature string quartet, No.13, and the Wihans with the less familiar No.11 at £12 post-free from MusicWeb. If you can still find remainders or second-hand copies of the Warner Apex 4-CD set of chamber music, which used to be available as 0927 49442 2, where the Keller Dvořák CD is bundled with good accounts of Mozart, Beethoven and Janáček, that is the best bargain of all - but don't forget that the price differential is reduced by the fact that Musicweb International offer Nimbus CDs at a competitive price.

The Keller Quartet version also figures in a budget-price 6-CD set of Dvořák's chamber music which Terry Barfoot made Bargain of the Month, still available on Warner 2564615272 - see review. Please check catalogue number before ordering: the number which I have given varies by one digit from that in TB's review.

Two other discs couple the two Dvořák Piano Quintets - a reliable Naxos CD with the Vlach Quartet again, partnered by Ivan Klansky (8.555377) and a Dorian disc with the Lafayette Quartet and Antonín Kubalek (DOR-90221). Hyperion themselves already have an excellent version of Op.81 from the Gaudier Ensemble, coupled with the String Quintet in G, Op.77 (CDA66796) and Michael Cookson recommended a similar coupling on Supraphon (SU3909-2, Škampa Quartet with Kathryn Stott - see review).

In fact, there is no shortage of excellent performances of the mature Piano Quintet, but I have taken the Gaudier as my benchmark, together with Clifford Curzon's 1953 recording with the Budapest Quartet, coupled with the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor on Naxos Historical 8.110307, also available from Archipel, and Curzon's later stereo recording with the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet (Decca 475 084-2, 4 CDs for around £21). The 1953 Curzon is also available on its own for £1.99 from classicsonline - here.

The Goldner Quartet has one important advantage: like the Vlachs, they observe the first-movement repeat. I wouldn't go to the stake over this, especially as it extends the movement to over 13 minutes, three minutes longer than the Gaudier or either of the Curzon versions, but this is such beautiful music that I want every note of it. Andreas Haefliger and the Takács Quartet also observe the repeat on a Decca recording which I recommended in my September 2009 Download Roundup - available from passionato.com, though the parent CD seems to have been deleted. If that version is reissued, it would make yet another formidable rival for the new Goldner recording. It's yet another Potton Hall recording, incidentally.

The opening is one point where the Haefliger version scores, with just a little more magic added to the wistful opening bars and wherever that mood of wistfulness is repeated. It's not that the new recording ignores this mood, simply that it's not quite as apparent. Then, when the more forceful sections alternate with that wistfulness, Haefliger and his partners sound just that little more positive. Matters also improve as the new Hyperion version progresses but, of versions with the repeat, Haefliger et al just carry the day, rounding off the movement marvellously.

It's Clifford Curzon's stereo Decca recording that stays in my mind, though, as perfectly encompassing the two different moods in this opening movement. I downloaded the Quintet alone from the box set to which I have referred - it's available on its own for £6.29, in good mp3 sound, from passionato.com, though the whole set is tempting, either on disc or as a download. Actually, I now think that, for all the beauty of the opening, that recording overdoes the wistfulness slightly at the expense of the more vigorous passages - Curzon lingers just a little longer than he had in 1953 - and the early 1960s recording, though good for its day, cannot match the newer versions.

For all that, I just had to listen to Curzon and the Vienna players all the way through again when I had listened to their version once. Bear in mind, too, that Curzon et al observe all the repeats in the second movement, unlike the first.

The Gaudier Ensemble on the older Hyperion recording probably strike the best balance between the wistful and the vigorous elements in the first movement. Despite their omission of the repeat, their combination of almost all the virtues of the Curzon/Decca and a more recent recording just about puts them at the top of what I must stress is a very distinguished pile.

The new Hyperion recording of the Second Piano Quintet is by no means to be discounted. It's simply that all its virtues seem to be possessed in slightly greater measure by one of the older recordings, though not even the 1962 Curzon/VPQ or the Gaudier Ensemble recording has them all.

Nor is the First Quintet to be written off: it would be interesting to speculate what our response to it would be if it were not known to have been composed by Dvořák, but hailed as a discovery by an unknown composer. It certainly has its merits and I believe that Dvořák was as unwise to disown it as he was to disown his early symphonies - even the first of these, The Bells of Zlonice, is worth an occasional outing, as I discovered long ago on a Supraphon recording. The slow movement of the First Quintet includes some passages of considerable beauty and the new recording makes the most of these.

Both the new Hyperion and the Nimbus CDs are competitive in terms of recorded sound - Potton Hall is a favourite location for chamber music recordings, with good reason. Graham Melville-Mason's notes make the Nimbus booklet as useful as the enigmatic cover makes it eye-catching, with the members of the Wihan Quartet apparently contemplating how to extract their instruments from the blocks into which they are fixed in the manner of King Arthur's sword in the stone.

If anything, the new Hyperion reproduces even more faithfully than the Nimbus, and the booklet is well up to Hyperion's high standards. Mercifully, it's a little thinner than usual; some Hyperion booklets are so large that it's difficult to reinsert them in their case without damage. No gimmicks on the cover, just an attractive, if rather bland reproduction of a Spring landscape.

If you like the couplings, then, these two new recordings will serve you in good stead. There are good reasons for having Quartets Nos.11 and 12 coupled and no other version outshines the Wihans in either work sufficiently to rule out a recommendation. The coupling of the Hyperion is even more desirable; again, no version of the mature Quintet is so far preferable to the new one as to rule it out, and the team make an excellent case for the earlier work.

Brian Wilson

 



 


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