Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 3 in D major, B. 18 (1869-70) [63:43]
Vlach Quartet Prague
rec. Studio Martinek, Prague, April 1998-January 1999
NAXOS 8.553378 [63:43]
Even as Dvořák chamber music goes, the D minor quartet is a big-boned score; the first movement alone clocks in at twenty-two minutes. While it brims with appealing melody, the writing is unusually polyphonic: here and there, an innocuous-sounding chordal accompaniment will, without warning, bubble into contrapuntal life. It thus proves a near-ideal vehicle for the Vlach Quartet Prague's linear style.
That last distinction may seem nonsensical. String playing, after all, is by nature a linear, melody-based process, "horizontal" where, say, the piano lends itself more readily to producing "vertical" blocks of sound. The Vlach players, more than most quartets I've heard, allow the textures to blossom from the interplay of individual lines. They certainly know how to "land" the big homophonic moments, as their direct, energetic attack at 1:19 of the scherzo demonstrates. Elsewhere, however, those chords that do occur seem to arrive almost incidentally to the logic of the counterpoint.
The first movement sprawls, not because the writing is discursive - the structure is surprisingly clear, even on first hearing - but simply because of the length of the theme-groups. This performance of it sounds well-organized and expressive. The opening attack, while gentle, is forthright, the long-breathed cantabile theme already moving with clear purpose. The second theme's dotted rhythms at 1:39 are lithe and springy, yet unobtrusively projected; the third subject, counterpoint and all, is delicately intoned.
In the Andantino, the players explore a nuanced palette of colours and dynamics. The melancholy opening flows, so it doesn't become maudlin; the yearning second subject, with its pulsing accompaniment, makes a nice contrast. The theme of the Allegro energico scherzo is a Czech patriotic song, but the mood is cheerful rather than formally anthem-like; after a pause, the players launch the Trio section, in a contrasting key, with easy, unforced unanimity. At the start of the Finale, the players "lean" into the first theme so as to heighten its metrical ambiguity: the upbeat sounds like a strong beat, which will throw the unsuspecting listener off-balance later on, when the scansion rights itself.
On the debit side, the tuning in a few open textures can be wayward: the searching episode at 8:53 of the Andantino, while brief, sounds particularly uncertain. Occasionally, the violin tone turns grainy in soft passages and diminuendos. While the players don't overdo the stretti in the home stretch, the closing chords needed a bit more oomph; as it is, the ending hangs fire.
Still, this isn't a score you'll often encounter, either in concert or on disc. As far as I know, the Prague Quartet's more conventionally textured account (DG) is only available in its complete Dvořák quartet cycle. So, at Naxos prices, this sensitive, stylish issue is worth checking out.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

see also review by Colin Clarke
This sensitive, stylish issue is well worth checking out. 
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