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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No.12 in F major Op.96 'American' (1893) [25:27]
Piano Quintet No.2 in A major Op.81 (1887) [40:55]
The Alexander String Quartet
Joyce Yang (piano).
rec. 2017/18, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA

If by the remotest chance your chamber music collection does not contain either or both of these benevolent masterpieces, then this disc is as good a way to acquire them as any. Along with the 'Dumky' Piano Trio, the two works here are probably the best-known and best-loved of Dvořák's chamber music. That does not mean they are necessarily the 'best' music he wrote for chamber ensemble but they are a consistent joy to listen too. And joyous is very much the characteristic that shines through the quite delightful performances here by the Alexander String Quartet and pianist Joyce Wang.

So familiar and ubiquitous is Dvořák's 12th String Quartet "The American", a title not given the work by the composer, that it is very easy to forget what a genuine masterpiece it is; one of those happy fusions of lyrical outpouring and structural mastery. Many have sought native American themes and influences but this can be a diversion. The key is that Dvořák wrote the work while staying with Czech community in Spillville during his sojourn in the USA and the spirit of Haydn occupied him. Later he wrote; "I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did". The strength and excellence of this performance is that it focuses on exactly those qualities of simplicity, melodiousness and straightforwardness. Yes, The Alexander String Quartet do follow the traditional ebbs and flows of tempi within a movement - relaxing into lyrical 2nd subjects for example - but never at the expense of the overall sweep of the music or in an effort to weigh it down with greater sentiment than it requires. To my ear this is pretty much an ideal performance - a perfect balance between the lyrical and the energetic, the boisterous and the gently pensive. Allied to this Foghorn have provided a quite excellent recording - not overly resonant or too close but providing a beautifully balanced and articulate sound stage. I was struck time and again - and this is a work I know very well from the performance/'inside' perspective - just how brilliantly Dvořák scores for the four instruments. There is real independence to the part writing that makes each player's contribution as rewarding as it is individual.

The music is so familiar that there is no need for a detailed description of each movement. Enough to say that the quartet find a perfect balance between the different moods and character of each section. The Alexanders generally favour flowing tempi - which I like - and they choose to take the exposition repeat in the first movement which I also prefer. The Stamitz Quartet in their complete Dvořák cycle on Brilliant or the Vlach on Naxos both have a darker collective tone - the former omit the repeat the latter include it. Both are fine, more characteristically (authentically?) central European performances but I really do keep coming back to the spirit of this new version as an utter delight. The standard of quartet playing is so high these days that the technical mastery of this ensemble is a given and by that measure other performances are its equal. But somehow, the players have managed to return to a very standard work in the repertoire and play it with the bright-eyed brilliance of first acquaintance - genuinely a performance to cherish and treasure.

Indeed, almost exactly the same can be said of the Piano Quintet performance that shares the disc. I listened to the whole recording before reading the liner notes and it is quite audibly apparent that these are two different sessions nearly a year apart. There is not quite the same level of engineered clarity in the quintet that is achieved in the quartet - that is not a criticism simply an observation. Also, Foghorn/the ensemble have made a technical decision to place the piano quite far back into the collective instrumental group. Pianist Joyce Yang plays her part quite beautifully but in every sense she performs as an equal not dominant member of the ensemble. You only have to listen to other famous versions; Richter with the Borodin Quartet, Firkusny with the Juillard, Bishop-Kovacevich with members of the Berlin Octet to hear a more traditional engineering solution. In this instance it takes the ear a little time to adjust to this choice but again once that has been achieved this is a musical performance of the first rank. The exposition repeat is taken in the quintet as well - again a choice I happen to prefer if only to be given a second chance to marvel yet again at Dvořák's seemingly unending melodic invention. This is especially evident in the work's two inner movements; a quite beautiful Dumka followed by one of the composer's very finest Scherzo-Furiants. In this latter movement there is a perfect example of how well this group 'pitch' the spirit of this music. For sure it is a virtuoso display with the first violin in particular given a very demanding part. All of the groups above - to which I would add Pressler and the Emerson Quartet - are fully up to those technical demands - but somehow along the way the smile is lost. Richter and the Borodins and - perhaps more surprisingly Firkusny and the Juillard are particularly guilty of this sin. Yang and the Alexanders make light of any technical issues but the abiding memory is of a bubbling good humour - you can almost sense the players smiling as they made the recording.

Previously I had known - and greatly enjoyed - this quartet's work mainly through their cycle of the Shostakovich quartets. This enhances their already considerable reputation. Worth mentioning that the quartet play on a matched set of modern instruments made by Francis Kuttner and they sound very fine indeed and a good match for Yang's Steinway Model D. The disc is presented in the now popular fold out digi-pak with the liner tucked into the left-hand sleeve. The booklet is nicely printed and well illustrated. The note is written in an informative if slightly avuncular style by Eric Bromberger. The engineering is a major contributor to the success of this release. This is a reasonably popular pairing on disc - Rubinstein and the Guaneris on RCA-Victor or Hala and the Smetanas on Supraphon spring to mind but for a modern recording in state of the art sound and imbued with the spirit of this great composer this has to be a recording given the highest accolades. I'm not sure when I got more pure pleasure from a disc in recent times.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: David Barker

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