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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet in F major, Op. 96, ‘American’ (1893) [25:27]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 (1871) [27:54]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
String Quartet No. 2 in D major (1881) [26:51]
Escher String Quartet: Adam Barnett-Hart (violin); Aaron Boyd (violin); Pierre Lapointe (viola); Brook Speltz (cello)
rec. 2017, Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany
BIS BIS-2280 SACD [81:17]

This is not the first time these three evergreen quartets have appeared together on the same disc, but it is rare. For anyone wanting these works this would seem to be an ideal way to obtain them, especially since you are getting over 80 minutes of wonderful music in state-of-the-art sound. An earlier CD with which I am familiar, containing these quartets, is a DG reissue by the illustrious Emerson Quartet. Although I don’t own that, I was able to sample it to compare with the new one here. Those whose allegiance is to the Emersons may rest easy because there is little to choose between their accounts and those of the Escher String Quartet. That said, the sound on the BIS SACD, which I listened via standard two-channel setup, is something to behold.

In its sheer virtuosity and lustrous sound this new version of Dvořák’s popular “American” Quartet challenges my current favourite by the Czech Škampa Quartet. The eloquent viola at the start of the first movement leaps from the speakers and the very dark cello near the end of the second movement makes a greater impression than I have heard before. With impeccable balances and tuning the Escher String Quartet leave little to be desired in this work. If I still prefer the Škampa by a hair, it is because of its utter naturalness and Czech inflection. It is a mellower account to be sure and is recorded in a more resonant acoustic. The recording by BIS has great presence and transparency, so that you won’t miss any of the finer details in Dvořák’s folkish quartet.

The other two Romantic quartets used to appear more frequently on disc than they seem to nowadays. So, it is fortunate that these melodious works accompany the Dvořák here. Both receive vital, if rather straightforward, performances, with little or no rubato. That’s not to say they are any less expressive and can be viewed as totally unhackneyed. The Tchaikovsky, of course, is most famous for its lyrical slow movement which has appeared by itself in a number of guises. One of my favourites is the cello solo version with orchestral accompaniment in a recording by Mstislav Rostropovich (DG). This Andante cantabile movement by the Escher is deeply felt and gorgeous without any schmaltz. The performance of the rest of the quartet, too, is at a high level of execution. The finale is playful, even ebullient, with a viola melody brought to the fore and the “Haydnesque” joke before the coda timed perfectly.

Borodin’s Second String Quartet, as well as a movement of its predecessor and other works of the composer, was used in the Broadway musical Kismet. Indeed, it is so tuneful, especially the second and third movements, that once heard it is hard to get out of one’s head. The Escher’s cellist introduces the first movement’s main theme beautifully and the second movement is Mendelssohnian in its lightness with its famous second theme heartfelt. The third movement Notturno plays a similar role to that of the Andante in Tchaikovsky’s work. This one is also marked “andante” and should not be dragged out as some accounts are wont to do. It receives a songful performance here, lacking nothing in Romantic ardour. The shimmering strings before the viola begins the passage leading to the final chord are particularly delightful. The finale, which can seem a bit repetitious also receives its due.

As usual BIS has contributed a classy product, its booklet having an attractive cover and informative notes by Philip Borg-Wheeler. With its vivid sound and superb performances, I can heartily recommend this very full CD to all lovers of Romantic chamber music.

Leslie Wright

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