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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quartet No.1 in D major Op.23 (1875) [36:19]
Piano Quartet No.2 in E flat major Op.87 (1889) [36:20]
The Dvořák Piano Quartet
rec. 2018, Martinů Hall, Academy of Performing Arts, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU42572 [72:48]

Without a doubt, Dvořák is one of those composers who is truly world famous but, as is often the case, for most admirers that fame will rest on a handful of scores whether orchestral, chamber, operatic or other. Falling outside this popular handful of works, are his two Piano Quartets and they are a magnificent pair of pieces, which show their composer – especially in the later mature masterpiece that is the 2nd Quartet – to be in the full flood of creative inspiration. Although both works run to around thirty-six minutes, they are strongly different in terms of their musical goals and aspirations but, paired together, they make for a well-contrasted, compelling and generous coupling. Curiously, for such an appealing and logical pairing, it is relatively rare in the catalogue. So, this new idiomatic, well-played and recorded performance is very welcome. That said, worth remembering that the Domus Hyperion recording of these two works merited a Gramophone rosette at the time of its original release in 1988.

The performers on this new fine-sounding Supraphon disc are the eponymous Dvořák Piano Quartet. This group has been formed by musicians who have all had extensive and successful careers as soloists and members of other famous ensembles. Obviously, to be allowed by the Dvořák Estate to take the composer's name is a mark of how highly they are regarded. This is their first disc that I have heard, and it is indeed very fine. But of course, competition is fierce. The 2nd Quartet is one of the greatest examples of this genre in the entire repertoire and has therefore been visited by every ensemble imaginable whether regular or 'scratch'. I reviewed a stunning performance by the Josef Suk Piano Quartet – also on Supraphon – in 2017; so fine it was one of my 2017 Discs of the Year. Here, the Dvořák Piano Quartet do not quite achieve the same level of intensity that players on the earlier recording managed but, to be fair, they have a different concept for the music and on their own terms they achieve those goals admirably.

The Dvořák Piano Quartet are especially successful in the earlier Op.23 Piano Quartet. Although written only fourteen years or so before the later work, it feels more of an apprentice piece compared to the latter's towering genius. That said, by the time he wrote this work Dvořák had completed seven of his string quartets. The piece is, so to say, sandwiched between the lyrical outpourings of the Serenade for Strings and the equally bucolic and sunnily like demeanour Symphony No.5. Dvořák experiments with form, in this work, using a three-movement structure where the central panel is an Andantino con variazioni. This work feels in part more experimental due to the proportions. The opening Allegro moderato is the work's longest section and slightly overwhelms the remaining movements. But the strength of this new performance is the easy lyricism that the players find. The instrumental interplay is relaxed but perfectly judged – in the best sense – and no single player seeks to dominate the musical argument. Dvořák's melodic resource is always a source of wonder and he dives into the musical argument with yet another flowingly rapturous folk-influenced tune. Pianist Slávka Vernerová-Pěchočová is skilfully helped by the discrete Supraphon engineering, ensuring her part does not dominate proceedings and instead the piano emerges elegantly and effectively whenever it is required. Contemporary reports noted favourably that here at last was a work where Dvořák discarded foreign (dread German!) influences in his music and wrote melodies that unmistakeably breathed Czech air. Ironically of course it was a German publisher (Simrock) who ensured Dvořák's global fame and fortune.

For many years my go-to performance of this coupling was yet another Supraphon disc with the great Suk Piano Trio, joined by Josef Kod'ousek. And just about anything recorded by the great violinist Josef Suk demands to be heard. The old recording does now sound rather thin but it’s interesting how the Suk-led group strive to find greater contrast within the same movement. Their opening sounds almost fragile and tentative compared to the warm lyrical flow of the new disc but then, Suk deliberately generates greater drama as the work moves into its development section. For continuity listen to the new disc, for contrast the older one. It should also be noted that the new disc is more technically polished in music terms, however there’s an authenticity to the playing of the Suk-led ensemble that, on that level, disarms criticism. The central variation movement is a case in point. The older recording is not a thing of great beauty – the instrumental sound relatively wiry and thin, the overall perspective shallow. But goodness me, every player has in their bones a way to phrase and nudge the music and so, take an artless theme and transform it into something rivetingly beautiful. The new performance is again more appealing and sensitive. The theme has a folk-like character although, as far as I am aware, it is a wholly original melody by Dvořák. The five following variations are well and sharply characterised, again showing the sheer range and richness of Dvořák's invention.

The closing third movement combines the elements of scherzo and finale into one compressed eight-minute movement. Once more, the new performance emphasises the lyrical graceful aspects of the music. This is not a performance to focus on the implicit drama. The difference is clear when comparing the closing pages – Suk and his team mark the cross-accents in the music far more sharply than the new disc. On balance, I must admit I prefer the more dynamic approach. The new disc feels as though it smoothes out the deliberately rough edges of the piece too much and too often.

As I wrote earlier, the 2nd Piano Quartet is surely one of Dvořák's great works. It lies in the heart of a flood of masterpieces of this time from the high-noon of his creative genius. Also, if in the first quartet Dvořák was willing to 'accept' the constraints and potential 'limitations' of chamber music, here he is straining at the leash. One can imagine this being reworked into a Symphony with relative ease. Dvořák rarely writes easily for his chamber players and in fact this quartet is very demanding. Using this measure, the new performance is very fine and with all the technical hurdles overcome with apparent ease. But here, I find it harder to accept the seamless lyrical flow of the playing. Heard in isolation there is much pleasure to be had, with fine music beautifully played; and how could it be otherwise? But to listen to the Josef Suk Piano Quartet, as mentioned earlier, is to realise that there is power and drama in this work. The new group touch upon it but do not explore it with the same conviction of the Suks. A lot of this comes down to the forceful use of accents with which Dvořák peppers the score, however, listen also how the Suk Piano Quartet mark far sharper dynamic gradients. They fall off a dynamic cliff; the new Dvořák Quartet follow a far gentler incline.

Naturally, I can imagine there will be listeners who prefer the more contained approach offered on the new disc. Timings are in fact very close between these two versions, with the new disc a few seconds swifter in each instance. The acid test came when listening to the Suk Quartet performance for comparison's sake in order to write this review. I intended just to dip into that performance and found myself compelled to hear it all. It really is that good. No real surprise then that the 2nd Quartet is well-represented in the catalogue albeit not often coupled with No.1, as mentioned. So, collectors have a wide choice and, if this is not a work you have yet encountered, I would urgently recommend you do.

The Supraphon engineering is very good and the balance between the instruments is well achieved. The liner (in English, French, German and Czech) is somewhat frustrating, in the sense that it gives useful historical context to both works but not even a rudimentary analysis of the actual music. Ultimately this new recording is excellent and very welcome but, for all its undoubted qualities, it would be hard to suggest that it supplants other versions in either piece.

Nick Barnard

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