Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From My Life’ (1876) [28:06]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 ‘American’ (1893) [3:34]
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
String Quartet in B flat Major Op. 11 (1896, finale rev. 1915) [29:05]
PARNASSUS PACD96058 [80:53]
The series of 78s made by the Bohemian String Quartet, also known as the Czech String Quartet, is one of the most valuable we have. The recordings preserve a style of playing now wholly lost and is rooted in late nineteenth-century procedures as to vibrato and tone production. By the late 20s, when these recordings were made – they had recorded acoustically back in 1925 - the foursome were still only in their 50s (in fact cellist Ladislav Zelenka was still only in his late 40s). The most famous member of the group is second violinist Josef Suk who, along with first violin Karel Hoffmann, had been a founder member back in 1892. The violist for these recordings was Jiří Herold who took over from composer-conductor-executant Oskar Nebdal, who left in 1906. Zelenka replaced the great Hanuš Wihan, who himself had taken over from original member Otto Berger.
So much for the personnel. There are three quartets in this well-filled disc. One can make endless comparisons between this recording of Smetana’s First Quartet and Dvořák’s American and the almost contemporaneous ones by the equally Czech Ševčik-Lhotsy Quartet, whose quivering portamenti are bewitching to hear. The Bohemian Quartet employed limited vibrato, plenty of portamenti and evinced an occasional uneasy relationship with tight ensemble. It can lead to messy approximations along the way – this is the very opposite of sleek cosmopolitan quartet playing – but it is consistently characterful, fascinatingly phrased, and full of utterly authentic-sounding rhythm. Intonation certainly wanders – the Ševčik-Lhotsy’s series of discs was famous for this, not helped apparently by a hot recording studio playing played havoc with the gut strings – but heard in context these are wonderful and lasting statements about quartet playing of the time, albeit ones that must have seemed – like the Capet Quartet in Paris, or Bronislaw Huberman – anachronistic in terms of tone production. Listen to the close of the Smetana however, played with almost innocent melancholy and you experience a sound-world unlike any other on disc.
What the notes don’t reveal is that the recording of Dvořák’s American Quartet was an electric remake of their late acoustic 1925 Vox set. Once again, this classic recording lacks all sense of virtuoso sheen. It may well be the case that the four players were lesser technicians than the many younger ensembles of the time but there is a deeply moving sense of corporate identification at work, and a really penetrating play of wit and humour in the scherzo that I’m not sure has ever been equaled. The folkloric elements too are incarnated with wonderful innocence. It helps to have the composer’s son-in-law playing second violin; it certainly adds a frisson, even if one is impervious to such associations. Indeed, Josef Suk’s First Quartet ends the disc, a work securely versed in Dvořák’s lexicon. The charming March themes in the Intermezzo are richly projected and there is a slight surprise in the finale. This is the 1915 revision, not the 1896 original. Suk obviously wanted to present his rather more modern face in this movement though many groups on record prefer the original.
Parnassus is offering the electrical recordings made by the group not included here – isolated quartet movements – on its website. As yet, there seems to be no similar offer on its acoustical legacy. The transfers are by Ward Marston and are customarily excellent. Many years ago, Biddulph put out a twofer containing recordings by the Bohemian Quartet and the 1930s Prague Quartet, another interesting compare-and-contrast exercise. I suspect these were also Marston transfers but haven’t the set to do my own contrasting. In any case that’s a second-hand acquisition now. In the meantime, this is a cornerstone quartet purchase for the historically minded.