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Voices of Defiance
Viktor ULLMANN (1898-1944)
String Quartet No.3, Op.46 (1943) [14:46]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
String Quartet No.2 in A major, Op.68 (1944) [35:50]
Szymon LAKS (1901-1983)
String Quartet No.3 (1945) [23:21]
Dover Quartet
rec. 2016, Rolston Recital Hall, Banff Centre, Alberta
CEDILLE CDR90000173 [73:06]

The Voices of Defiance, the title of this disc, were threefold and their relevant works were composed between 1943 and 1945. Ullmann was to die in Auschwitz, Laks survived incarceration there, and Shostakovich wrote his epic Second Quartet in 1944 whilst in the artist colony of Ivanovo.

Ullmann’s Quartets have received increasing investigation over the years. The Dover Quartet’s performance of the Third Quartet is especially beautiful, its languid and expressive opening showing Debussy’s influence just as much as any infiltrations from Schoenberg. The hazy and vaporous direction of the writing has an admixture of almost Zemlinskian decadence, the Dover players phrasing richly, with dynamics well varied, with the more abrasive elements of the music emerging all the more shockingly because of the surrounding textual beauties. Such is certainly the case with the grotesque dance motifs, overt, assertive, and triumphant. The brief second movement finale is splendidly judged. A far less eroticised and more robust approach comes from the Schulhoff Quartet on VMS202, coupled with quartets by Janáček and Krasa. Meanwhile the outstanding Kocian Quartet (Praga PRD250 180) emphasise the impressionist over the expressionist elements: their sense of movement is more direct, and they offer a more obviously extrovert reading.

Locomotive rhythms, jaunty and bristling with train whistles, power the opening of Szymon Laks’ Quartet No.2. The music’s frantic accelerations suggest a barely controlled frenzy, but the deeply expressive Recitative and Romance offers a sympathetic counterblast. I must note, amidst the many corporate instrumental felicities to be heard from the Dover Quartet, some particularly beautiful phrasing here from violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. The slightly café style pizzicati in the scherzo prefigure the genially ambling gait of the folklorically inflected finale. Like the opening movement, the finale embodies musical acceleration of a most infectious kind. The music’s tarter, in-the-soil qualities are far better experienced in this original quartet version than in the alternative version Laks made later, for Piano Quintet. This can be heard in the performance by the ARC Ensemble on Chandos (see review) though of course one can understand why he chose to reconfigure such deeply attractive music.

The challenges of the Shostakovich are much better known than the two companion Czech-Polish works. The Dover Quartet’s performance is structurally reminiscent of that of the Fitzwilliam in its famous Decca cycle. The folkloric elements of the opening draw parallels with the Laks’s finale, whilst the long and melancholic first violin recitative (splendidly done by Joel Link) over a sustained drone is powerfully effective. Rhythmically and sonically this is a strong performance, very different from those of the lusher Borodin Quartet (especially the 1982 incarnation) and the more incisively resinous Taneyev.

The programming here makes a good deal of sense even if lovers of the obscure might have wished for another lesser-known quartet alongside the Ullman and Laks. The Dover Quartet plays with refinement and expressive balance as well as driving rhythm and abrasion, as required. Cellist Camden Shaw contributes notes that are personal and subjective almost to a fault, but they show his commitment to the repertoire. And that’s been splendidly served here.

Jonathan Woolf



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