Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No.9 in d minor, Op.34, B75 (1877) [33:50]
String Quartet No.14 in A-flat, Op.105, B193 (1895) [32:56]
Wihan Quartet (Leoš Cepický, Jan Schulmeister (violins); Jirí Žigmund (viola); Aleš Kasprík (cello))
rec. live, Convent of St Agnes, Prague, no date given. DDD.
Comparative versions:
Quartets Nos.9 and 14 – Prague Quartet from DG 463 1652 (9-CD set of complete Quartets)
Quartet No.9 – Vlach Quartet, Naxos 8.553373 (with Terzetto, Op.74)
Quartet No.14 – Emerson Quartet from DG 477 8965 (3-CD set of Quartets nos.10-11, 13-14; String Quintet, Op.97)
Vlach Quartet – Naxos 8.553374 (with Quartet No.10)
Moyzes Quartet – Naxos 8.550251 (with Quartet No.12)
Szymanowski Quartet – Avie AV2092 (with Haydn Op.54/2 and Grazyna Bacewicz, Quartet 4)
I reviewed the Wihan Quartet’s recording of Dvorák’s String Quartets Nos.11 and 12 just a couple of months ago – NI6114: see review. I thought highly of those performances, though I didn’t rate them quite equal to the top versions in a hotly contested field. Michael Greenhalgh wrote of those performances: ‘The intensity and commitment of the Wihan’s performances make them very striking and gave me a lot of pleasure, though some may prefer a calmer approach’. (See review.)
Since then another strong competitor has arisen for No.11, from the Emerson Quartet on a 3-CD set recorded in 2009, entitled Old World, New World (DG 477 8965). This new set, which I downloaded in lossless (flac) sound from Passionato – here – also contains a competitive version of No.14, thereby straddling the contents of the two Nimbus CDs. Michael Cookson wrote that it would be hard to imagine these scores played better – see review.
Passionato also have the older budget box set of all the Quartets played by the Prague Quartet (463 1652 - here), in mp3 sound only this time. At the time when I checked, the set was halved from the usual £30.99 to £15.49: both compare favourably with the asking price of around £48 for the physical CDs. No.9 may be downloaded separately for £5.39 and No.14 for £4.99.
If you prefer to make your own comparisons before purchase and you subscribe to the Naxos Music Library, you will find the new Nimbus CD there, together with Naxos’s own highly rated recordings with the Vlach Quartet: 8.553373, No.9 with the Terzetto, Op.74, and 8.553374, Nos.10 and 14. In both works the Vlach players’ tempi are considerably slower than the Wihans in all movements except the finale.
Competition is not so intense in No.9. The Prague performance of the opening movement is easy-going and predominantly lyrical. By comparison with the Wihans, who seem to be aiming to make more of a point, they sound as if they have all the time in the world, yet their overall times are remarkably close: both are a little faster than the Vlach Quartet. The performances of this, the longest movement, set the tone for the whole quartet: the Prague players seem content to play straight and not to stress the sense of grief which others find in the music – Dvorák had recently lost three infant children – or to attempt to claim for the music the kind of status that is normally attached to the composer’s more mature works.
The Wihan Quartet, while respecting the allegro marking just as much, capture the darker undertones more effectively, making the tone radically different from the easy-going Prague version. As with their earlier recordings on NI6114, your reaction will depend on whether you think that they point the emotion a little too markedly or feel that they bring out a mood inherent in the music, without doing so too blatantly. The comparison serves to remind us of the extent to which two different performances can almost convince the listener that s/he is listening to two different works. I’m going to annoy those who like a recommendation of a definitive ‘best’ version by saying that I enjoyed both.
The Vlach Quartet point the sadness of the music in a different way, by adopting a slower tempo than either of their rivals. They play the music less straight than the Prague Quartet but less pointedly than the Wihans. For all my normal preference for the middle way, I liked this least well of all three versions, unable to square the slow tempo with the allegro marking. If you want the emotion here, I think that it has to be achieved by the Wihan method.
The three versions are much closer in the alla polka-trio second movement: the Vlach players are again marginally slower than the Wihan and Prague Quartets. I tried the Vlach recording first and wondered at the outset where the scherzando element, which Dvorák’s marking demands, had gone. As Graham Melville-Mason in the Nimbus booklet notes, this is far from being a merry dance, but it isn’t even sardonic in the Vlach performance, though I warmed to the performance as the movement progressed.
The Prague Quartet give the music a much more noticeable lilt right from the beginning – the difference is rather like hearing the music of the Strauss family directed by Willi Boskowsky immediately after hearing a good non-Viennese version. The analogy is not quite exact, of course, since the Vlach Quartet are as Czech as either of their competitors. The Wihans fall between the two stools in this respect – they achieve the lilt which I thought the Vlachs missed, but seem to have to work harder to achieve it than the Prague Quartet. By the end of the movement, there is little to choose, but honours overall go to the Prague players. As so often, however, the differences between the versions are much less marked if, instead of comparing individual movements, one listens to the whole quartet in each version.
The margin is wider in the adagio third movement: the Vlach performance is over a minute longer than the Wihan, with the Prague Quartet almost exactly in the middle. This, if anywhere, is where the emotional heart of the work is to be found. Listening to the Wihan Quartet first, I found the performance exactly matched to the key words in the Nimbus notes: melodically expansive – ardent – mood of contemplation. Moreover, the Wihans achieve this effect without any obvious striving: full marks.
High marks, too, for the Prague Quartet at just a few seconds faster. Again, the full emotion is pointed without having to be wrung out. Nor do the Vlach Quartet wring their hands: in fact, their slower tempo also works well. In the final analysis, perhaps, their style of performance would be more suited to more overtly emotional music, such as Schubert’s String Quintet.
In the poco allegro finale, all three quartets once again agree closely on the basic tempo. Here again, the Wihan Quartet match the forceful rhythms and dynamic contrasts mentioned in the Nimbus notes to the letter, but there is also energy and activity in the other two accounts. All three round off performances of the whole work to which I can happily return, though the Wihan and Prague Quartets are more satisfying than the Vlach Quartet in individual movements. The Vlach recording is the least expensive, both on CD and as a download, but, with only the Terzetto as coupling, it offers less than an hour’s playing time.
The String Quartet No.14, begun in New York but only completed on return to Prague, is fully worthy to stand beside the more famous American Quartet. There is more competition in this work: as well as the Vlach Quartet, Naxos have an attractive older version from the Moyzes Quartet (8.550251), coupled with the American, a pairing which many will think ideal – but so is the Keller Quartet coupling of the American Quartet with the String Quintet in E-flat, Op.97, superb performances which also come in the lowest possible price range (Warner Apex).
Unwilling to dissect Quartet No.14 movement by movement, I listened to the Wihan performance all through and enjoyed it so much that, with equally good recording, it’s likely to become my future benchmark against which to judge other performances. Apart from the final allegro, the tempi throughout are faster and the whole tone lighter than the Moyzes Quartet which has hitherto been my CD choice for this work. The Wihan Quartet take 10:45 for the finale, against 9:40 from the Emersons, 9:58 from the Prague Quartet, 10:01 from the Moyzes Quartet, 10:23 from the Vlach Quartet and 10:30 from the Szymanowski Quartet (Avie AV2092, with Haydn and Bacewicz, also available for comparison from Naxos Music Library: see reviews by Glyn Pursglove – here – and David Blomenberg – here.). Yet, although they are the slowest – a minute slower than the Emersons – the Wihan Quartet capture all the joy and vitality of this movement.
Does that make the others, especially the Emerson Quartet, too fast? After all, the movement is marked allegro non tanto. The Emersons never seem to scramble, but, equally, I don’t think that their faster tempo adds anything to the happy mood over and above what the Wihans achieve. The Prague Quartet also look fast on paper: in reality they offer the light-hearted kind of playing that pervades their complete set.
When the Vlach Quartet recording was released, I see that it was described in some quarters as eminently satisfying in its quietly purposeful and amiable manner, which could be another way of saying that it might be faster. That would mean by implication that the Wihan Quartet ought also to take the movement more quickly. I listened carefully to the Vlach and Wihan versions in succession: in actuality, the differences apparent on paper disappear in practice. If anything, the Vlach sound a little under-powered by comparison with the Wihan and other performances, but neither sounds too slow.
I could be happy with any of these accounts. In many respects the Szymanowski Quartet version of No.14 is the best of the bunch – though Glyn Pursglove had some reservations about the couplings, he and David Blomenberg praised that recording and I enjoyed hearing it, too. The snag is the unconventional coupling, but if you want the Haydn Op.54/2 and Grazyna Bacewiz Quartet No.4, go ahead.
It wouldn’t be fair to make too close a comparison of the recordings, since I listened to the Wihan Quartet’s competitors as downloads. The Nimbus recording is excellent throughout – though the performances were recorded live, there is mercifully almost no audience noise. The final applause has been (briefly) retained. I know that many listeners find applause annoying, but I like some of it to be included.
I listened to the Prague Quartet from Passionato and the Vlach Quartet and Szymanowski Quartet recordings from Naxos Music Library in mp3, at the full 320kbps bit-rate: all sound more than adequate. The lossless recording of the Emerson Quartet is excellent, though those happy with mp3 at the full bit-rate will save a few pounds on downloading in that format: £12.99 as against £15.99 for the lossless – the CD set sells for around £26 in the UK.
The Nimbus notes are informative, but I mark them down a point or two for not including a recording date. When they stamp the date and even the time of manufacture of their CDs on the label, (C) and (P) 2010 won’t do.
The two new recordings, on Nimbus and DG, more than hold their own against the earlier versions. If the coupling of Nos.9 and 14 appeals, go for the Wihan Quartet, especially if you already have and enjoy their earlier Dvorák CD. Having made all the detailed comparisons, I played the whole CD through again and greatly enjoyed it. I shall certainly be retaining my review copy and ditching the Naxos/Moyzes Quartet. If the idea of having all the mature String Quartets apart from No.12, the American, plus the Quintet, appeals and you already have a recording of that work, perhaps in the Emersons’ own version, the Emerson Quartet, in the 3-CD set or as a download are well worth the extra outlay. If you are looking to obtain all the quartets in one go – and you could do much worse – the older DG box set of the Prague Quartet offers unbeatable value.
Brian Wilson
Fully competitive in a strongly competitive field.