RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn Saint Wenceslas, op. 35a (1914) [7:25]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No. 1 From My Life in E minor (1876) [30:47]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 12 American in F major, op. 96 (1893) [28:16]
rec. Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, 3, 4, 17, 18 November 2010.
SACCONI RECORDS SACC104 [66:25]
It was the late Bob Briggs who first wrote glowingly about this young British quartet on the pages of Musicweb International (see reviews of their Haydn and Ravel/Lalo/Turina CDs). He commented on their attention to “getting it right”: making sure their tempo fitted the music, finding the nuances and producing a wow factor so often missing from recordings. This collection of Czech works was my first exposure to the Sacconi Quartet. When I saw it offered at the Chandos Classical Shop on their 50% discount download offer, I remembered Bob’s words and bought it.
I will start with the only work of the three with which I was familiar enough to be able to make a sensible judgement on the performance: needless to say, the Dvořák.
From the entry of the viola in the first few bars, I could tell this was something special. There is a certain luxury to the viola’s tone that is quite delicious, and the Sacconis take Dvořák’s “ma non troppo” instruction seriously, unlike most other versions I have heard. As a consequence, the first movement at 10:26 is the slowest I could find, but not at a cost of forward motion. The contrast between the two themes is so striking because not everything is taken at speed. The yearning in the Lento is quite overwhelming and brought to mind a program note from a performance of the Dvořák cello concerto I attended recently. It made quite a deal about the homesickness Dvořák was feeling when he wrote it - that being the case, it is easy to hear the same emotion here. The third movement Molto vivace is taken much more slowly than usual - almost a minute longer than the Lindsays - and I might take issue with it, were I not so convinced by the Sacconi’s interpretation of the rest of the work. In the finale, the slow chorale is given considerable gravitas, providing a dramatic contrast with the hoedown-type fiddle theme.
This is an emotionally charged performance of the American Quartet, and possibly some may find it too much so, but when I listened to my other recordings - the Lindsays chief among them - they seemed bland by comparison.
The Suk was new to me, though certainly not to the recording world - Arkiv Music lists 12 recordings, making it one of Suk’s most often recorded works. To put that in context, the Dvořák has 78 listings on Arkiv. As the name would imply, it is slow throughout, with an impassioned outburst in the middle. The quiet outer sections are treated with great delicacy.
If this isn’t the best performance of Smetana’s deeply personal quartet, written after the onset of his deafness, then I would be very keen to know which is. Perhaps the most appropriate compliment I can pay the Sacconi Quartet in this work is that in bringing out the wide range of emotions in the four movements so well, they can almost convince you that the work is a masterpiece on a level with the Dvořák.
On top of the great performances is easily the most balanced and realistic chamber music recording I have heard. With my eyes closed, I feel that I could reach out and touch the musicians. As I mentioned above, this was a download, but in CD quality lossless flac format.
As a combination of performance, composition and sound, it really doesn’t get much better than this. Needless to say, I shall be seeking the other recordings by the Sacconis forthwith.
It really doesn’t get much better than this.
Masterwork Index: Dvorak Quartet 12