The members of the Martinů Quartet studied at the Prague
Conservatory with Viktor Moucka of the Vlach Quartet. They founded
the quartet in 1976, and, with the blessing of the Martinů
Society, took that composer's name in 1985, since which time
they have been active proponents of Martinů's chamber music.
While the present program doesn't feature that composer, these
Dvorák performances once again exemplify the seemingly intuitive
understanding of phrasing that's peculiar to native and Czech-trained
musicians, and apparently beyond the reach of even the most
astute, polished foreign practitioners. It's been said that
the melodic and rhythmic patterns of Czech music, particularly
Dvorák's, reflect the inflections and rhythms of the Czech language.
This may well be so, but I suspect that even those with little
or no knowledge of Czech will recognize a natural ease in the
phrasing here that suggests a "spoken" immediacy.
The Martinů members, and their fellow-travelers, constitute
an exceptionally unified, impeccably balanced ensemble, top-to-bottom.
They play these scores with a taut, full-throated intensity
characteristic of Slavic string players, digging into the tremolo-like
figures of the quintet's first movement, soaking the opening
chorale of its Larghetto in vibrant tone. Yet their alert
rhythmic address - note the delicacy and point of the dotted
rhythms in the quintet's finale - keep the sound from becoming
heavy and earthbound, as can happen in second- and third-tier
Czech orchestras; the music always moves firmly towards important
points of arrival. Both performances convey a satisfying sense
of rigorous, "symphonic" drama.
There's no denying, however, that the players' frequently robust
manner militates against the more mysterious, ambivalent colors
of these scores. In the quintet's Allegro vivo, the Trio
isn't eerie, but prosaic. Their approach doesn't always allow
for affection, playfulness, and good old-fashioned charm. The
quintet's opening movement does unfold easily and naturally,
and the players find room for warmth in the earlier sextet.
But, given the fetching way they lighten the textures at 7:05
in the opening Allegro moderato, for example, you'd expect
them to seek out a similar variety in the theme-and-variations
finale. As it goes here, a sense of sameness ultimately prevails.
Subtler, but possibly more compromising, is the occasional absence
of repose - in Dvorák, exemplified by, but not limited to, the
characteristic plagal ("A--men") cadences and harmonies.
It's not that the players are unaware of this aspect of the
style; in the quintet, the easy assurance with which they "settle"
into the first movement's turn to major at 0:56 shows that.
But, in the Sextet, after a healthy Furiant, the Trio
section, which sings nicely, would blossom with a measure of
greater breadth. Similarly, the coda of the Quintet's first
movement nods at the right sort of relaxation without actually
quite achieving it.
So these aren't quite ideal realizations of these scores. Still,
the Martinů's sins are basically those of omission, rather
than of commission. This is a young ensemble; they have time
to grow into the fullness of the Dvorák style. Meanwhile, their
performances are already appealing, and quite powerful.
What should be a track listing is confusing - the movements
of each work are numbered "1" through "4"
- and incorporates careless misprints ("allegro gusto,"
"quasi adantino"). The sound quality, however,
is vivid and present.
Stephen Francis Vasta