Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
String Quartet in D minor, Op. 56 ‘Voces intimae’ (1909) [31:01]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ‘Z mého života’ (1876) [28:01]
String Quartet No. 2 in D minor (1882-3) [18:05]
Dante Quartet (Krysia Osostowicz (violin); Giles Francis (violin); Judith Busbridge (viola); Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK, 7-10 July 2010. DDD
HYPERION CDA67845 [77:56] 

To my knowledge this is the first time that these three quartets have appeared together on a CD, although the Kocian Quartet recorded the Sibelius along with his Andante Festivo and Smetana’s First Quartet. The present disc makes for a very full program, whereas, as quite often, listeners get short-changed when the two Smetana quartets appear by themselves without an additional work. As for the Sibelius, it has been recorded with his earlier works in the genre or with other Nordic quartets, such as the Emerson Quartet’s program of Grieg, Nielsen and Sibelius on DG. I welcomed the Dante Quartet’s Janáček works on Meridian when it appeared, though I found the sound to be on the artificial side. Here I have nothing but praise for their performances and the recording as well. However, there are other accounts of these works in the catalogue that are on the same level technically and interpretatively as these. The main attraction of this disc, then, is the particular combination of pieces, and the performances are certainly worthy.
Gavin Plumley, in his interesting booklet note, compares the quartets of the composers by stating that they reflect the torment that both composers were experiencing at that point in their lives - Smetana with the loss of his hearing, and Sibelius in a period of alcoholic depression. Indeed, these works do represent very personal statements by the respective composers, but they can be appreciated on their musical merits alone. Plumley also mentions that two of the works, the Sibelius and Smetana’s Second Quartet share the key of D minor, one of the darkest of minor keys. Whether or not these particular works have that much in common, they make for very good disc-mates. In contrast to the introvert nature of the Sibelius, the Smetana works’ drama is more external and direct, especially in the Quartet No. 1.
I compared the Sibelius with the Emerson recording and find little to choose between them. Overall, the Emerson is slightly speedier and takes about three minutes less, the biggest difference being in the Adagio di molto middle movement where the Dante add some two minutes to the Emerson’s timing. Yet, both quartets capture well the anguish present in this, the longest movement and emotional center of the work. Otherwise, their tempos are close enough to make little difference. Both recordings are excellent.
For the Smetana quartets, the main competition comes from the Supraphon label. The eponymous Smetana Quartet made four recordings of these works throughout their career and their renditions have been considered by many to be definitive. Other Czech quartets, such as the Panocha and škampa, have produced noteworthy accounts as well. I reviewed a disc for this website containing the Quartet No. 1 and Janáček’s Quartet No. 2 by the Hába Quartet, which was founded in Prague, but now based in Frankfurt, Germany. I found their Smetana to be very idiomatic and overall excellent. Their timing is very close to that of the Dante, and their interpretations have much in common, too, though the Hába is the more dramatic and extrovert. Some of this impression, though, is due to the recorded sound where the Hába is placed closer to the microphones. In the second movement polka, I prefer the Dante because they are more straightforward than the Hába, who employ more rubato and hesitation. One could argue that this is in fact idiomatic-what the Czechs do with the polka is similar to what the Viennese do with the waltz. The real heart of the work is the very poignant and beautiful slow movement and both quartets excel here. In the finale, the Hába’s extroversion pays real dividends and their high E, signifying Smetana’s approaching deafness, is the more startling. I would not want to be without either recording of this masterpiece, but it’s a shame that the Hába did not include the second quartet as well.
Smetana’s Quartet No. 2, which he composed towards the end of his life, is a terser and more tightly constructed work than his first. It may be at a lower level of inspiration and has never received the popularity of the first quartet, but nonetheless is representative of the composer. The second movement and finale contain elements of the folk dance, but the third movement with its agitation exemplified by fierce tremolandos points the way to Janáček in his string quartets. Overall, the work is less Romantic than its earlier companion and leaves a rather unsettled impression. As in the Quartet No. 1, the Dante Quartet does complete justice to it.
I can easily commend this CD to anyone interested in these works, and it is gratifying to see such a full program and one that makes a good deal of sense. As usual, Hyperion does not disappoint in its production, and as indicated above, Gavin Plumley’s notes are thought-provoking and well written, too.
Leslie Wright 
A well-filled disc and the performances of these quartets are as good as any.