Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quintet in E flat major, Op. 97 (1893) [32:57]
String Quartet in A flat major, Op. 105 (1895) [32:01]
Takács Quartet: Edward Dusinberre (violin); Károly Schranz (violin); Geraldine Walther (viola); András Fejér (cello)
Lawrence Power (viola: quintet)
rec. 2016, Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth
HYPERION CDA68142 [64:59]
Not long ago I reviewed a CD of the Škampa Quartet with guest violist Krzysztof Chorzelski performing the Dvořák “American” String Quintet that so impressed me I named it a new reference version and it became one of my Recordings of the Year (review). Since then Supraphon has issued a recording of the quintet by the Pavel Haas Quartet with violist Pavel Nikl that has also received rave reviews. Now the Takács Quartet with guest violist Lawrence Power have entered the fray. Although the quintet has never been as popular as the “American” Quartet, these new accounts will likely give it the increased exposure it deserves. That said, this latest addition to the discography, while good, does not compare so well with either the Škampa or Pavel Haas accounts.
I have always had the greatest admiration for the Takács Quartet and especially their recordings of Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. As with many quartets, they have changed personnel over the years. Only violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér are members of their original makeup. This has affected their sound to some degree. In the works on this disc, the violin sound turns strident on occasion and the use of vibrato a bit excessive. Also, there are places in both works where the tuning is suspect. In general this does not greatly detract from the performances. However, in direct comparison with the Škampa and Pavel Haas accounts of the quintet, the differences are noticeable. The Takács Quartet and violist Lawrence Power turn in a straightforward performance of the quintet with normal tempos and little employment of rubato. They are accorded very clear sound that is both a good thing—in that one can appreciate the inner workings of the piece well—but also results in any shortcomings being audible. The blend overall is not as fine as in the other recordings, and individual instruments tend to protrude at times. The balance is thrown off at the beginning of the second movement where the accompanying figures are more prominent than the main theme. Pride of place for me remains the Škampa Quartet with Krzysztof Chorzelski. They are obviously enjoying the work a lot and everything seems so natural and spontaneous, even in their use of rubato. They are also accorded the warmest and richest sound. The Pavel Haas are nearly as fine, technically superb and clearly idiomatic, but somewhat straighter than the Škampa and with livelier sound. For most listeners I would guess it is a matter of coupling choice. The former has the great Piano Quintet with Boris Giltburg, while the latter pairs the quintet with the “American” Quartet.
I found more to like in the Takács Quartet’s disc mate, the late Quartet in A flat which is the last of the string quartets Dvořák completed (Op. 106 in G was composed while Dvořák was writing the A flat work, but finished before Op. 105). I have never appreciated this quartet as much as either the “American” or Op. 106. While the scherzo seems most inspired with its beautiful trio, the last movement tends to ramble. For this quartet the Takács also has considerable competition, including their own 1989 account on Decca with the quartet’s original personnel (Gábor Takács-Nagy, first violin; and Gábor Ormai, viola). Their approach now is quite similar to that of their earlier recording. Both are well played, but again there are impurities in the tuning and some intrusive vibrato not present in 1989, where the quartet’s performance is fresher and more cohesive. There are a number of Czech ensembles, who have recorded the quartet and would be better choices unless the interest lies in this particular combination of works. The Vlach Quartet on Naxos or the Wihan Quartet on Nimbus come to mind.
Misha Donat contributes comprehensive and well-written notes that add value to this issue. The bottom line, though, is that there are more options for these works to be had elsewhere.