Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht Op.4 (1899) [27:08]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Sextet in A major for two violins, two violas and two cellos, B.80, Op.48 (1878) [33:42]
Talich Quartet (Peter Messiereur, Jan Kvapil (violins); Jan Talich (viola); Evzen Rattay (cello)); Jiri Jajnar (viola); Vaclav Bernasek (cello).
rec. 1989. location not specified. DDD
PHAIA PHU011 [60:50]

This Phaia disc reissues two famous string sextets in a rather incongruous pairing. It comes with minimal documentation: no recording date (beyond the year) or venue details and a brief note in French and English. Verklärte Nacht was written in 1899 and may be seen as a gateway to a new modernism as well as Schoenberg’s prolonged farewell kiss to Romanticism. With this in mind it is not entirely inappropriate to twin it with the Dvořák sextet written a mere twenty years earlier. The latter’s sunny optimism could hardly be more different in mood from the brooding agony and ecstasy depicted in Transfigured Night. Still, this issue represents a safe recommendation to anyone wanting these two works on one disc.
The reputation of the Talich quartet pretty much guarantees a fine performance and they are accompanied by two first-rate musicians to complete a superlative ensemble. They are recorded at very close quarters which ensures clarity and transparency of sound. It also permits the listener to hear every nuance of their admirably refined and impeccably tuned playing.
For purposes of artistic comparison I listened again to two favourite recordings: the augmented Hollywood Quartet in the Schoenberg and the Raphael Ensemble in the Dvořák. Limitations of 1950 mono sound are an issue in the former but both of my comparison recordings strike me as essentially superior in some crucial aspects. For all that I greatly enjoy the performances here on Phaia.
Certainly the Hollywood adopt broader, more indulgent tempi, hence their overall timing is some two minutes longer. They also find marginally more warmth and Schwung in their phrasing. One crucial point for me is the reprise of the big melody at 5:57 presumably depicting the woman’s delight at the prospect of impending motherhood, where I could do with more attack from the Talich. The same is true towards the end at 30:40. I have to provide timings in this format as the Phaia disc irritatingly provides only one track for the entire piece. Testament gives us five tracks corresponding to the stanzas of Robert Dehmel’s poem Weib und Welt and the text to boot, so the listener may better appreciate the links between the written word and the music.
The opening must establish a sense of tension and even impending menace. For me the playing of the Talich tends more towards lugubrious than portentous but there isn’t much in it. It is so good to hear this music played in sound which first permits the first violin to sing the upper line so sweetly and secondly retains a proper balance between the instruments.The old Testament recording is often mushy. Furthermore, the Talich really find form in the shimmering apotheosis of the last three minutes which close the work. The tone of the two cellos is simply luscious and the desired rhapsodic climax is achieved. Nonetheless, some might still find their classical restraint a tad understated compared with more overt interpretations.
In the Dvořák: the Talich are somewhat heavier in style than the Raphael Ensemble, who are less intense, more lyrical and recorded in a warmer, less forensic acoustic. The Raphael certainly find more light and shade in the Furiant whereas the Talich lean into the first beat of each bar in more emphatic fashion which can sound a tad leaden-footed. The Raphael also find more lilt and charm in the Dumka. Once more, in the Finale the Talich are striving for more evident impact and underlying whereas the Raphael opt for an easy lyricism which I find more apt. However, these things are very subjective and I doubt whether anyone will be disappointed in these sextets, beautifully played as they are here.  
Ralph Moore 

I doubt whether anyone will be disappointed in these sextets, beautifully played as they are here.