Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet no.10 in E flat major, Slavonic, Op.51 B 92 (1879) [31:50]
String Quartet no.11 in C major, Op.61 B 121 (1881) [38:13]
Talich Quartet
rec. 2014, Convent of St Agnes, Prague
The venerable Talich Quartet continues to revisit its discography in this latest traversal of two quartets close to its heart. The group's current line-up - Jan Talich, Roman Patočka, Vladimír Bukač and Petr Prause - has also revitalised its association with La Dolce Volta by selecting a new sound engineer (but retaining its producer) and changing to a new recording location in Prague. Given that these are experienced and distinguished musicians it's only to be expected that their ensemble sonority remains as of old and that their interpretations sound fresh and uncluttered.

Firstly, however, keep your wits about you. Whilst the book-format CD with its natty and colourfully brief notes in French, English, German and Japanese is part of the label's much vaunted 'luxury' marque, the track listing has unfortunately been mangled. Op.61 is first, not Op.51 as advertised, but also further note that the movement tempo indications are also transposed which leads to much confusion if you don't know the quartets well.

Once past this glitch, the listener can enjoy unimpeded the refined and sometimes even airy performances. Czech quartet playing has a long pedigree and the country boasts some of the finest groups in the world, but fortunately there's no sense of homogeneity in performances. As the Smetana and Janáček groups represented Bohemian and Moravian approaches, so Prague-based quartets offer very different approaches. The august Prague Quartet on DG, whose set of all the quartets is still a reference edition, offers a heavier toned approach to both works is a more billowy acoustic, whilst the Panocha is more kinetic than either the Prague or the Talich.

In Op.51 the Talich presents the most clement and refined approach of the three, though that's not to imply rhythmic slackness or lack of vitality. Rather they don't sculpt phrases quite as dramatically, allowing the material to unfold at natural tempos without too overt a use of rubato. The Panocha tends to take a more excited approach to accelerandi, galvanizing the music with local incidents of concentrated power and excitement. And because the Panocha Quartet's recording is a touch distant and they use heavier vibrato than the Talich their performance, certainly of the slow movement, can sound less nimble, answering phrases a touch less affectionate.

All this is very much a question of personal taste. The Dumka of Op.61 offers a fascinating test case of difference in approach. The Prague is the most deliberate and the Talich and Panocha are both a good minute faster. However the Panocha sounds significantly faster because of its tensile and athletic approach to phrasing, whereas the Talich holds steadier tempi and plays with beautiful lyricism.

This is by no means an unusual coupling. The Zemlinsky Quartet has also offered it in their unfolding disc-by-disc complete quartet series on Praga, though the two discs I've heard (including Opp.51 and 61) would not lead me to prefer them to the three groups already cited. If you enjoy heavier sonorities and a more cushioned recording and want to invest in the cycle the Prague offers solid assurance. For a sense of galvanising energy, take the Panocha. For sheer lyric elegance and an approach that lets the music unfold naturally, warmly and affectionately, you can't go wrong with the Talich.

Jonathan Woolf

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