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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quartet No.2 in E flat major Op.87 (1889) [37:39]
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Piano Quartet in A minor Op.1 (1891) [22:59]
Josef Suk Piano Quartet (Radim Kresta - violin, Eva Krestová - viola, Václav Petr - cello, Václav Mácha - piano)
rec. 2016, Concert Hall of the Prague Conservatory
SUPRAPHON SU4227-2 [60:44]

These are tremendous performances of tremendous music. Aside from Brahms I cannot think of another late 19th Century composer who so enriched the repertoire of chamber music as Antonín Dvořák. His contribution ranges from wonderful string and piano trios up to glorious sextets with thirteen string quartets at its heart. Yet, with the exception of the “American” String Quartet, the “Dumky! Piano trio and possibly the Piano Quintet, the bulk of this wonderful music remains lesser known. But if you love the sweep and drama of his symphonic music, all the same qualities and values are there in the neglected chamber music too. And nowhere is this more evident than in the 2nd Piano Quartet Op.87.

The informative liner note to this CD makes it clear that this work was written during the high summer of Dvořák’s creativity. Starting with Op.87 there is a remarkable flood of genius; the Piano Quartet No. 2, Symphony No. 8, Requiem, B165, Piano Trio No. 4 “Dumky”, In Nature's Realm, Carnival, Othello, Rondo for Cello and Orchestra and the Symphony No. 9 “From the New World” - and that is stopping before the famous Cello Concerto, Rusalka, or the late tone poems.

Again, the liner makes clear the easy compositional virtuosity at work here. The first movement all develops from a single thematic motif, while the second reverses that minimalist trend with no less than five themes. Around the time of the work's composition - 1889 - Dvořák was at last able to turn down the post of composition professor at Prague Conservatory (when pressed again later he relented and in that role met and taught Suk) and devote himself to being a full-time composer. This implies a sense of self-confidence which this music bears out. For all the drama the work contains - and for all the stream of melodic invention it teems with - there is little or no room for any doubt. This is music of resolute optimism. That is a characteristic it shares with the intelligently coupled Suk Op.1 Piano Quartet. But if Suk’s is the confidence of youth then Dvořák’s is that of a master craftsman fully aware and at ease with his own extraordinary talent. As ever with great music, it can function for the listener on a variety of levels. Forensic analysis reveals the structural complexity and inter-relation of themes. But on another level, this is just a hugely enjoyable listen - every time I come back to this work it impresses me all over again with the sheer fecundity of its invention and brilliance.

Serving the music with supreme skill are the remarkable Josef Suk Piano Quartet. This ensemble evolved from the Taras Piano Trio and took the name of the great Czech violinist (and grandson of the composer) at the behest of Suk’s widow Marie Suková - to whom this CD is dedicated. Up until this point, my reference recording has always been the one led by Josef Suk, with his piano trio augmented by Josef Kod’ousek. It logically couples the two Dvořák Piano Quartets and remains a superbly idiomatic, sensitive and compelling performance. But whisper who dares, this new performance is even finer in terms of technical address and unanimity of ensemble. The individual and collective playing of the Josef Suk Piano Quartet is nothing short of staggering in its attack, accuracy, clarity and cohesion. I did wonder if just occasionally lyrical warmth was being sacrificed in the name of such brilliance but then listen to the heart-felt lyrical phrasing of the 2nd subject in the finale [track 4 1:36] or indeed the meltingly beautiful opening to the slow movement with playing of touching simplicity from cellist Václav Petr.

The work has been well served on disc - the Domus recording for Hyperion is well regarded. Quite often existing Piano Trios expand or String Quartets drop the 2nd violin and add the piano to complete the ensemble - again often with impressive results - the Vlach Quartet on Naxos or the Emersons on DG spring to mind. But I think there has to be an argument for hearing a dedicated Piano Quartet ensemble as here.

Turning to the coupling, this is just as impressive as a performance and given the aptness of it, quite surprising that it has not featured more often in tandem with the bigger work [Amazon lists a version by the Kubelik Trio with Josef Suk with no other details, which I have never heard - grandson Suk on Viola I presume?]. As is well known, Josef the composer was a student and later son-in-law of Dvořák. His period of study with the senior composer started at exactly the time of the 2nd Quartet’s composition. The liner points out that Suk gave his Piano Quartet - written under the direct influence of the other work - the marking of Op.1 even though it was by no means his first major work. However, it should be considered the first work which truly reveals the compositional path he was to tread. Again, this is music which positively crackles with dynamic energy. The outer movement allegros are qualified with the terms appassionato and con fuoco respectively and that describes them to perfection. This is music bursting at the seams with invention and youthful élan. For a composer aged just 16 this is a prodigious work in the literal sense. For sure, you do not hear the harmonic complexity or striking originality of the mature composer but it is a hard-hearted listener who will not respond to the bravura writing. Certainly, the superb Suk Quartet players respond with another performance of complete conviction. Listen to the very opening gesture in both performing and compositional terms. This is a composer and players laying down music with thrilling authority. For sure, the way Suk leads into lyrical second subjects apes Dvořák and this does sound throughout more like the senior composer in particularly heroic vein more than the junior - but he is sixteen for goodness sake!

In some ways, even more remarkable is the young composer’s control of the singing lyrical line of the central Adagio. This provides another example of the range of expressive playing this quite brilliant ensemble can traverse. The purity of the intonation when the string players are in unison at the octave is staggering. This central movement teeters on the edge of being a salonesque song without words but I find it a joy to listen to. The only other version of this delightful work I know was part of a 3 disc survey by Supraphon of all of Suk’s chamber music. For admirers of Suk’s music this is a compulsory purchase since it again features Josef Suk the grandson in many of the works, including this Piano Quartet. They are even gentler in this heart-breaking Adagio with the great pianist Jan Panenka finding a perfect balance to his pulsating accompaniment. I meant to dip into this earlier Supraphon disc just for comparison’s sake and found myself listening to the whole work all over again. The style of the playing on the new disc is noticeably clipped, almost curt with the articulation remarkably clean. Certainly, in comparison to the earlier Supraphon disc this is the most obvious stylistic difference. I cannot say I prefer one to the other.

The engineering on the new disc is discreetly fine too. The string players of the quartet are clearly divided from left to right across the sound-stage with the piano central and fractionally ‘behind’ the strings in a way that ensures an effective balance throughout. The liner is informative and well-written in four languages; English, German, French and Czech. As I wrote in my opening sentence - a tremendous performance of tremendous music. The more I listen to this disc the more I believe that to be true. All discs by this hugely talented ensemble are eagerly awaited.

Nick Barnard

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