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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartets - Vol. VIII
String Quartet no.10 in E flat major, ‘Slavonic’, op.51 B 92 (1879) [33:23]
String Quartet no.11 in C major, Op.61 B 121 (1881) [39:01]
Zemlinsky Quartet (František Souček, Petr Střĺžek (violins), Petr Holman (viola), Vladimír Fortin (cello))
rec. Martinek Studio, Prague, 15-16 February 2014.

The Zemlinsky Quartet are in the process of recording all of Dvořák’s music for string quartet for Praga. This latest instalment is an especially valuable coupling for the general collector. If you are not in the market for an ‘intégrale’ of these works complete with the early student efforts, and with fully mature mastery emerging really with the tenth Quartet found on this disc, where do you look? You must have the ‘American’ quartet in F major Op. 96 of 1893, and its two wonderful successors from 1895, the A flat Op.105 and the G major Op.106. Those last three much-recorded quartets are numbered 12-14, so this pairing of numbers 10 and 11 will be the next works to add, since for once with this composer the numbering does not obscure the sequence of composition.

The tenth quartet opens with an air of flowing bucolic serenity. You immediately sense that these Czech musicians, a group formed twenty years ago, are completely at home with the idiom. They take the exposition repeat, which is welcome, especially played so engagingly, and when the development steals quietly in, the succession of crescendi and diminuendi have a natural, unforced, breathing quality. The molto tranquillo close makes for the gentlest of leave-takings. The Dumka (Elegie) second movement has an andante con moto first section, which the Zemlinsky approach with the just the right elegiac manner. When the contrasting 3/8 Vivace begins, there is no great jolt. It seems a goal of the interpretation overall not to over-emphasise the traditional Dumka contrasts but to maintain a sense of a single flowing movement. Nonetheless the presto marking towards the end brings all the vivacity one could wish. The slow movement (called Romanza) is tenderly delivered, and the final Allegro assai has a carefree abandon that’s just right for this most genial of Dvořák’s quartets.

The eleventh quartet is a big work, nearly forty minutes, with an opening movement — with exposition repeated as here — that can touch fifteen minutes. Several commentators suggest Beethoven was the model for this piece. Be that as it may, the Zemlinsky bring the same Bohemian qualities to this piece as to its predecessor, preferring to present movements as integrated and coherent rather than to play up contrasts. Many quartets would make more of the feroce marking in the first movement development. While the Zemlinsky acknowledge that moment, it is with a proportionate, even response. In the coda this relative discretion pays dividends, as the swift alterations of tempo and dynamic carry the listener convincingly through to the morendo ppp close. The adagio is played as marked, molto cantabile and while the scherzo is properly lively so too is the trio. Its dolce marking is observed for the opening phrase but soon gives way to further rustic celebrations. The finale’s rhythmic invention is all we expect of a Czech dance and is well characterised.

This is a valuable pairing, well played and recorded, even though both performances and the SACD sound could for some listeners be a little self-effacing. Certainly an earlier Praga SACD of the eleventh quartet from the Pražák quartet, recorded in 2004, would still be my slight preference in the C major work – they seem to take its Beethovenian aspirations more seriously. This is a case of comparing different kinds of excellence, and if you like Czech music to stay closer to its homeland, this is a very satisfying issue of two essential chamber works.

Roy Westbrook



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