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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet in E flat, Op.51, B92 (1878-79) [31:38]
Bagatelles, Op.47, B79 (1878) [19:26]
Violin Sonatina in G, Op.100, B183 (1893) [18:59]
Vlach Quartet with Miroslav Kampelsheimer (harmonium: Op.47)
Ladislav Jásek (violin) Zorha Lochmanová (piano)
rec. Prague 1955 (Sonatina) and 1962 (Quartet, Bagatelles)
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR937 [70:03]

The naturally flowing rhythms and inimitably coloured tonal shading of the Vlach Quartet illuminate Dvořák’s Op.51 quartet from the very start of its development. All four men were masters of the repertoire and their technical and expressive assurance is a joy to hear. In Josef Vlach, there was a primarius of the utmost authority. If a quartet is only as good as its second violin then Václav Snítl, a considerable virtuoso in his own right, ensured that the group remained in the top flight. Josef Koďousek’s solo recordings proclaimed him one of the Czech Lands’ leading violists, and Viktor Moucka was the cellistic rock of the group. How fortunate was Czechoslovakia to have had the Smetana, the Janáček, the Vlach and so many other groups playing at the top of their form in the 1950s, 1960s and beyond.
 
So, flowing rhythms and a distinctively warm textured sound-world ensure a reading brimming with energy and sensitivity. Koďousek takes his chance to sing out when required and Moucka’s authoritative, precise rhythm keeps phrases briskly on the move. The Dumka is properly taken con moto, though never breathlessly – the spirited extroversion is delicious, the songful contrasts never lapsing into sentimentality. In the Romance the diminuendi are naturally conceived, not sculpted – they are part of the vernacular – whilst the finale’s sprung rhythm has great clarity. Maybe the sound of the early 1960s recording is a touch acerbic, but it’s exciting stuff, nonetheless. It’s been a habit of late for some groups to play the string version of the Bagatelles but here we have the harmonium version, that role taken by Miroslav Kampelsheimer. I like this version best for its domestic-sounding ambience, and its rusticity is beautifully suggested in this performance, recorded at the same time as the quartet.
 
An earlier recording is that of the Sonatina, given in 1955 by the pairing of violinist Ladislav Jásek and pianist Zorha Lochmanová. Jásek, born in 1929, made some interesting recordings, from conventional ones, such as the Bach Double with Josef Suk and Smetáček, to sonatas by Bořkovec and Doubrava. He also recorded Prokofiev’s Second Concerto with Turnovský and that bizarre concerto by Vladimír Sommer which effectively presents the Prokofiev concerto’s slow movement as a kind of ghostly homage. I’m not sure that the Dvořák shows either player to great advantage and the recording doesn’t impress either. It’s very dry and the piano sounds odd – it sounds like a rickety upright. LP rumble seems to have been ineradicable. The best interpreted movement is the last, but it’s not a performance I’d recommend. Forgotten Records has done the best it possibly can with its transfer.
 
This is a disc for lovers of the Vlach Quartet – treat the Sonatina as a curio.
 
Jonathan Woolf