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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1907)
Piano Quintet No 1 in A major, Op 5 [26:33]
Bagatelles, Op 47 [14:40]
Piano Quintet No 2 in A major, Op 81 [39:26]
Busch Trio
Maria Milstein (violin); Miguel da Silva (viola)
rec. December 2017 Queen Elizabeth Music Chapel, Waterloo, Belgium
ALPHA CLASSICS 403 [80:41]

Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A, by which most people refer to what is actually the second of two in the same key which the composer wrote, is a glorious work and, checking back through my own CD collection, I found that I had a recording by pianist Clifford Curzon, together with the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet, led by Willi Boskovsky, an original ADD recording from 1962 (ADD signifying that an analogue tape recorder was used during the original recording session only). On that CD, the coupling was with Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor, whereas the new release by the augmented Busch Trio includes the composer’s earlier First Piano Quintet, as well as the Five Bagatelles.

Dvořák’s First Piano Quintet has never enjoyed a good press. Only quite recently, the question was asked that, had the composer not written his Second Quintet, would the First now at least be heard more often? The general response seemed to be a fairly resounding ‘no’. Like the composer’s other cyclic works from the early 1870s, his First Piano Quintet also has only three movements – his basic plan then being Romantic pathos in the first movement, a more sombre tone for the second movement, and a joyous finale. In its original version, the First Quintet was first performed in Prague in 1872, but this version and its autograph score are no longer extant. Some five years later when the composer decided to revise some of his very early works, he had to request a copy from his friend Ludevít Procházka, who subsequently lent Dvořák his copy and the composer was thus able to make a few deletions and revisions. This revised version, however, was never played during the composer’s lifetime; its premiere took place in 1922, given by students at the Prague Conservatoire. The work was not published until 1959, as part of a critical edition of the composer’s oeuvre. The First Quintet may be just a shadow of the Second, but while he was attempting to make improvements, the best thing that came out of all this was his decision to compose an entirely new work in its place, which we now have officially as the Second Piano Quintet, but usually known simply by the later opus number, Op 81. Dvořák’s new work is a far more compelling example of his personal form of expressive lyricism, as well as his use and integration of Czech folk-music elements, that include styles and forms of song and dance, but not actual folk tunes – a synthesis of original melody and authentic folk style.

Knowing all this history didn’t really make for a very auspicious start, as the augmented Busch Trio embarked on the First Quintet’s opening (Allegro ma non troppo), with a theme that probably owes as much to Liszt as to Dvořák, while the second nods decidedly more in Schubert’s direction. Contrary to expectations, things are sounding quite encouraging so far, and even if the recording is bright and placed well-forward, the playing certainly does no disservice to the composer, despite the largely negative comments about the music itself. The build up to the recapitulation is effectively managed, and already shows the composer (he was also an organist, violinist and violist) to be more than capable of handling the combination of piano and strings, which was especially impressive, given that he had no piano available to him at the time. In fact, a good deal of what he developed in this First Quintet comes to greater fruition later, in the Second. The movement holds together well, and while the composer did later cut some 150 bars when he revised the work, the resulting disappearance of the second theme in the recapitulation, and the otherwise slightly abrupt ending this might then have occasioned, are, however, more than compensated for by some eminently impressive musical discourse on the way to the movement’s nonetheless effective close.

The players then embark on the impressively-sustained Beethovenian slow movement (Andante Sostenuto), where the piano’s opening is firstly mimicked by strings, before bursting into moments of more Romantic outpouring. Again, the balance is generally well-maintained between piano and strings, even if at times the crescendos do tend to come with some built-in ferociousness. After an agitated middle section, the movement returns to the music of the start, culminating in a quite touchingly tranquil close, which again the players handle with refinement and sensitivity.

The Finale (Allegro con brio) brings the key back from the somewhat remote F major to A major – the home key (or tonic key) of both this early quintet, and the composer’s far-better-known Second. Unlike the slow movement, this immediately starts agitatedly enough, with a pronounced scherzo-feel most of the time. Once more the players convey as much excitement to the listener as possible in a taut and exceptionally well-controlled reading, from the strings and piano. While there are some fingerprint juxtapositions of major and minor tonality, and occasional short breaks to catch breath, the Finale eventually proceeds towards a most effective close, with its final four bars played presto (very fast).

Sandwiched between the First and Second Quintets are the composer’s Five Bagatelles – a work requiring two violins, and cello, with keyboard support either from the harmonium or piano, both playing from the same score, irrespective of instrument. The instrumentation normally creates a very distinctive timbre at the start of the first piece (Allegretto scherzando), where the highly-idiosyncratic sound of the harmonium is first heard sustaining a chord of G minor over a pizzicato rocking-arpeggio-figure on the cello, before the first violin enters in the third bar with its charming little melody, accompanied by a similar arpeggio-figure added by the second violin, but here played legato. Well, at least that’s what I was expecting to hear, given that the sleeve-note quite clearly refers to the harmonium’s role here, even specifically, to its ‘subdued drone’ here at the start.

On closer examination, of course, the sleeve-notes are not specific to this particular recording but are generic, written by Professor Jan Smaczny, an eminent musicologist who specialises in Dvořák’s life and music. Writing about the non-existent harmonium, he says: ‘(it) was a popular domestic keyboard instrument in Prague in the later nineteenth century. A friend, Josef Srb-Debrnov, with whom Dvořák enjoyed evenings of chamber music, owned a harmonium and it was for one of these occasions in 1878 that he wrote the Bagatelles. They were composed at the same time as the first set of Slavonic Dances, and very much share their national spirit. As the harmonium is so germane to the Bagatelles, I find it extremely disappointing that the players chose to substitute it with the piano, which, while shown as an option on the score, cannot, as a percussion instrument, in any way emulate the distinctive timbre of the harmonium, where the sustained nature and dynamic of the wind-sound produced, depend more on the player’s input than, say a conventional organ. A harmonium is a keyboard instrument, where the sound is produced by blowing air through reeds, which are tuned to different pitches to make musical notes. In the foot-pumped harmonium, which would be required here, the player presses two pedals with their feet, one at a time. This is joined to a mechanism which operates a bellows, sending air to the reeds, and giving more intimate control than when the bellows are electrically-operated or hand-pumped by a third-party, as used to happen with the organ. It’s disappointing that the harmonium has been omitted, but more so when it’s only by playing the CD itself that you actually realise this for the first time.

To add insult to injury, the opening of the first piece also features in the third piece of the set, both pieces marked ‘Allegretto Scherzando’, and it even returns in the finale – the other two movements are, respectively, a graceful Minuet, and a rigid, yet lyrical canon. I don’t think that Dvořák ever envisaged his Bagatelles as a suite of five short, related pieces for piano quartet, for, not only is a quartet’s string component different – violin, viola and cello – the title page of the Bagatelles states ‘Harmonium or Piano’ –and in that very order. They are, surely, more-intimate items of chamber music, where the harmonium should, on this occasion, be preferred to the much-more-powerful piano. Furthermore, I got the distinct feeling that here the four performers appear to see it more as something for piano quartet, rather than as Bagatelles – usually unpretentious pieces, mostly light and mellow in character. At times with the piano, rather than harmonium to contend with, the performers do sometimes big things up, it would seem, almost intentionally, but which was probably not what the composer had in mind at all. In fact, in terms of dynamics, there are only a few fortissimos in all five movements put together, which would further tend to confirm that, at least in the composer’s eyes, this is chamber music for use in the home, not fully-fledged pieces for the concert-hall.

Unlike its predecessor, the Second Quintet is in four movements, and, while it was written when Dvořák was at the peak of his international fame, arguably of greater importance was the fact that it was composed in the genial setting of his country retreat at Vysoka, a village some 30 miles (50 kilometres) south west of the capital, Prague. For it is this quintessential injection of all-things Czech that makes the Second Quintet so successful and immediately appealing with its entrancing lyricism and unencumbered design – virtually everything, in fact, that the First Quintet lacked.

Currently there are more than 20 versions of the Second Quintet available on CD, ranging from recent recordings, like the multi-award-winning 2017 release on the Supraphon label, with pianist Boris Giltburg, violist Pavel Nikl, and the Pavel Haas Quartet (review), to various combinations involving such diverse artists as Jascha Heifetz, Leonard Pennario, András Schiff, Leif Ove Andsnes, Piers Lane, and many more. The present recording certainly scrubs up pretty well against the existing opposition. From the laid-back start of the opening (Allegro ma non troppo), where Ori Epstein’s cello sings with great expression over the gently-undulating piano part, until the others enter, producing at times, both here and in the other movements, such a full-bodied string sound that it’s hard to envisage only four instrumentalists playing. The slow movement, here entitled Dumka, is an original term from the Ukraine, where, in the hands of a number of Slavic composers, Dvořák in particular, it became transformed to mean a type of instrumental music involving sudden changes of expression – from melancholy to exuberance, often with associated tempo changes, too. In the Second Quintet – the emotional heart of the whole work – while this ‘Andante con moto’ doesn’t have a really wide emotional range, it still incorporates tempo changes, which the players manage seamlessly, and culminates in a particularly fine and exciting climax at the end of the 2/8 ‘Vivace’ section. At all times there is a strong sense of individual line, which, given the already transparent texture, helps the players shape phrases, and bring out counter-melodies that sometimes go by unnoticed in some performances. The music then returns to the calm of the opening start, for its appropriately solemn ending.

The third movement is simply one of those pure gems in the chamber-music repertoire – a sparklingly fast-waltz, imbued with the more erratic rhythms and accents of the Czech Furiant, as its initial tempo marking, ‘Scherzo (Furiant) Molto vivace’ would suggest. The slower Trio section (Poco tranquillo), in the somewhat distantly-related key of F, provides some welcome contrast and respite, before the opening Furiant is heard once more. Interestingly, the players begin the Furiant at a speed of some 97 bars per minute, but on each reprise, there is a quickening of tempo, which might add some extra verve, but is not stipulated in the score. The final occasion, after the Trio, is even more noticeable, given that it follows a slowing-down, and opens around 107 bars per minute, despite the score simply requiring a simple return to the same tempo as at the start. However, if we compare the running-times for this movement from three different recordings, the present CD comes in at 4:13, Giltburg’s 2017 version at 4:21, and, quite surprisingly, perhaps, Curzon’s one from 1962 takes only one second longer than the latest one, at 4:14.

If speed were everything, then the present CD (7:30) would emerge just slightly ahead of Curzon (7:33), as far as Dvořák’s impeccably well-written Finale goes. For all its joyfulness and gay abandon, the closing movement, cast in Rondo form, is still imbued with an underlying sense of longing, as well as a certain gravity, which manifests itself in fugato passages – where parts appear to intertwine, imitating each other as they do, rather like in a fugue, but not as extended as such. It is here that the present players sound rushed, almost frantic at times, and where the somewhat more-expansive rendition from Giltburg (8:29) allows the music more time to breathe. Bizarrely, while Curzon’s Finale is just some three seconds longer than the present players, it doesn’t sound anywhere near as rushed, and this is where both Giltburg’s and Curzon’s respective ensembles have the edge, which would seem to confirm it’s not so much what you do, but how you do it, that matters.

As mentioned, Giltburg’s CD of the Second Piano Quintet did receive a number of awards and accolades, but Michael Cookson in his review for MusicWeb International – referred to above – still came down in favour of Curzon’s original 1962 recording, an opinion I would also wish to endorse, when comparing it with the latest release from the augmented Busch Trio. Curzon’s 1962 recording is now available on the Decca Eloquence Label (ELQ4804715), where it is coupled with Dvořák’s String Quartet No 10 in E flat, Op 51. It can also be heard on ‘Clifford Curzon: The Complete Decca Recordings’ – 23 CDs plus one DVD (4784389).

Whichever CD of the Second Piano Quintet you ultimately go for, will not only depend on the vast choice of artists who have recorded it, but also what the coupling is. To that end, the augmented Bush Trio certainly do offer a compelling performance of Dvořák’s First Piano Quintet, and their rendition of the Second Quintet does the composer no disservice. You also get the Bagatelles, even if the harmonium is conspicuous by its absence, so in many ways it’s all still worth considering – not perhaps quite the best around, but it’s definitely well recorded and well-played throughout.

Philip R Buttall



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