Antonín DVORÁK (1841-1904)
CD 1
Sextet in A, Op. 48, B80 [33:22]
String Quintet in G, Op. 77, B49 [33:26]
CD 2
String Quartet No. 12 in F, Op. 96, American [25:11]
String Quintet in E flat, Op. 97, B180 [33:19]
Bagatelles, Op. 47, B79 [17:59]
Vienna Octet (Wiener Oktett) (CD 1 and Op. 97), Janácek Quartet (Op. 96), Vienna Philharmonic Quintet (Op. 47)
rec. October 1963, Decca Studio 3, London, UK (Op. 96); October 1969 (Op. 77), April 1971 (Opp. 48, 97), May 1975 (Op. 47) Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 2375 [66:48 + 76:29]

Dvorák’s chamber music is too varied and too broadly excellent to yield a “best-of” album, but this two-CD set does a fine job. It’s part of Decca Eloquence’s new series commemorating the Wiener Oktett, the superb chamber group composed of Vienna Philharmonic musicians and friends which, from the early 1950s to the mid-1970s, covered much of the chamber repertoire in genial, sun-lit performances. Here are Dvorák’s two mature string quintets, his sextet, and a performance of the American quartet courtesy of the Janácek Quartet. Everything is excellent.

The Sextet begins down a generalized warm romantic Brahmsian path before Dvorák asserts his absolute artistic independence with a gorgeous dumka slow movement and winking furiant scherzo. (“Furiant” denotes the rhythm rather than the mood, which is cheery.) The final theme and variations restore a bit of weight to the proceedings, but never too much. This is an excellent performance, with the full measure of both the serious and folksy sides of the composer. One could argue, though, that the Panocha Quartet and friends capture the composer’s spirit with a little more gusto.

The Quintet Op. 77, from 1875, has been one of my favorite Dvorák works since I first heard it. It’s a fondness which this performance justifies in full: from the jovial outbreak of the first movement, to the rollicking scherzo and its breathtakingly simple tunes, to the endless stream of melody that is the andante. It is good to hear a recording from 1969 which presents the double-bass so clearly: even today engineers have trouble giving it proper credit in the balance.

The final string quintet, Op. 97, is here too. It’s one of the composer’s masterworks, written during his time in America, and the Wiener Oktett are again enthusiastic advocates of the composer’s emotional depth and “American” folk influences. These come in especially close contact in the superbly-rendered scherzo and slow movement.

The Janácek Quartet substitute for their Viennese colleagues in a very nice performance of the celebrated American String Quartet (No. 12), distinguished by an especially fine slow movement. Still, why omit the first-movement repeat? It’s not as if this is music you wish would be over sooner. Competition here is fierce highlighted by the old and new Vlach Quartets and the fantastic, brand-new Pavel Haas Quartet disc, but then most buyers will be considering this set for the sum of all its parts. And, since the final part is the rare Bagatelles for two violins, viola, and harmonium (brought to us by members of the Vienna Philharmonic Quintet), this set can claim an edge over some of the competition. The Bagatelles are more consequential than their name implies, each four or five minutes long, and the harmonium adds a flavor of peasant street bands. Or is that my imagination getting the best of me?

Either way, this set is a mighty attractive selection of first-rate Dvorák: recordings date from 1963 to 1975 but are never inferior or jarringly different from each other, the annotation is good, and the playing simply heavenly. The best single collection of Dvorák’s chamber music is probably the four-disc red box on Supraphon with the Panocha Quartet, Suk Trio and friends, although I’m not fond of the Panocha’s way with the quartets. Still, there is no reason for a lover of this composer to avoid this charming release.

Brian Reinhart

No reason for the Dvorák lover to pass this one up!