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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, B.155 (1887) [40:24]
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op.96 American (1893) [26:40]
Carmina Quartet (Matthias Enderle (violin); Susanne Frank (violin); Wendy Champney (viola); Stephan Goerner (cello)); Teo Gheorghiu (piano)
rec. 2-6 July 2012, Konzertsaal Stadthaus Winterthur, Switzerland
SONY CLASSICAL 88725479482 [67:14]

Founded in 1984 in Switzerland the Carmina Quartet has been the recipient of a number of awards for its recordings. This Sony Classics release sees them in a Dvořák programme and joined for the Piano Quintet in A major by Zurich-born pianist Teo Gheorghiu. 

Buoyed by the great success of his fifth visit to England in 1886 Dvořák the next year completed his substantial and joyous Piano Quintet in A major Op. 81. It was composed in the Slavic folk idiom that pervades so many of Dvořák’s best scores and written before his extended stay in the United States of America. Some years previous, in 1872, Dvořák had actually composed a three movement A major Piano Quintet,B. 28, Op. 5. Dissatisfied with this he destroyed it but some fifteen years later obtained a copy and began making revisions. Although it has been recorded several times it is rarely heard today. In the quicker movements of the Piano Quintet, Op. 81 the Carmina and Gheorghiu play with unerring vibrancy and an uplifting sense of joy. What wonderful music Dvořák wrote for the Dumka: Andante con moto with its glorious main melody. It’s most impressively rendered here. Unfortunately I found the recorded sound rather over-bright for my taste being especially uncomfortable in the forte passages. The main culprit is Gheorghiu’s too closely recorded piano with the cello not far behind.
From the recordings in my collection of the Piano Quintet, Op. 81 my first choice is the evergreen 1962 Vienna account from Clifford Curzon and the Vienna Philharmonic String Quartet led by Willi Boskovsky. Spirited and highly persuasive, this is classic chamber music playing of the highest quality. It’s available digitally re-mastered on Decca 448 602-2 (c/w Schubert Trout Quintet, D.667). Another marvellous version that I often play is the stunningly vital performance from the Leipzig String Quartet with pianist Christian Zacharias. This was beautifully recorded in 2003 on MDG Gold 307 1249-2 (c/w Dvořák String Quintet, Op. 97). 

During his stay in America from 1892 to 1895 Dvořák composed some exceptional works. In 1893 he completed the New World Symphony. He spent his summer holidays at a Bohemian colony at Spillville in Iowa where he immediately felt identification and great happiness among his fellow countrymen. Under these favourable conditions he completed in just a matter of weeks his so-called American Quartet. This found instant acclaim and enduring popularity for its masterly construction and splendidly memorable invention. The gloriously melodic opening Allegro ma non troppo is heard here being played with real affection. Taken at a most judicious pace the players adroitly reveal an elusive undercurrent of passion. The Lento is beautifully done with generosity and tenderness. An uplifting exhilaration is there to be heard in the delightful two final movements to round off a fine performance. Here the bright sound quality still feels a touch over-close but didn’t detract too much from my enjoyment. My reference recording is from the Emerson recorded in 1984 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City. They play with assured concentration, intensity and unerring passion on Deutsche Grammophon 445 551-2 (c/w Tchaikovsky No. 1 and Borodin No. 2). I have also long admired the recording from the Talich Quartet who may not be as silky smooth as some but play with proficiency, real expression and impressive unity. The recording from circa 1975 is available as part of a 3 disc box on Calliope Cal 3229.1 (c/w Dvořák Piano Quintet No. 2; String Quintet and the String Quartets, Opp. 61, 105, 106).
The splendid Carmina Quartet play with an abundance of vitality and an uplifting joie de vivre but they are hamstrung by often unflattering sonics. This is a highly crowded market with some fierce competition which the Carmina cannot displace.
Michael Cookson 

Masterwork Index: American quartet