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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet No.16 in E flat major, K.428 (1783) [23:17]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 14 in A flat major, Op. 105, B.193 (1895) [32:33]
Zdeněk FIBICH (1850-1900)
String Quartet No.1 in A major: Polka (1874) [4:18]
Ondříček Quartet
rec. 1940-1944

Founded in 1921, the Ondřček Quartet survived in various permutations until 1956. Based in Prague it was one of Czechoslovakia’s leading ensembles though its early years coincided with the primacy of the Czech (Bohemian) Quartet – who had a worldwide reputation and left imperishably beautiful recordings – and its final years saw the rise of the Janček and Smetana Quartets. In its middle-age years the Ondřček also had to compete with the Prague Quartet, so it wasn’t easy to carve out space in a competitive and compact market. But the war years offered an opportunity, as the recordings here show.

The Mozart quartet was recorded in February 1944. The playing is ardent and richly textured. It’s neither as tonally rich nor as prayerful as the Busch two years earlier or as tonally homogenous as, say, the Schffer in 1956, to cite a group that recorded the work in the year the Czech ensemble disbanded. But it is deeply felt, reverential in the slow movement, as well as romanticised, and characterful in the scherzo. It’s been transferred from the Odeon 78s and I don’t think it was ever transferred to LP. There is some attractive thistly shellac accompaniment therefore that keeps the sound open, though there sounds to have been a tricky first movement side-join at 4:20, which is rather too noticeable.

The companion Dvořk quartet, Op.105 was recorded in Berlin in 1941 and has also been transferred from 78s, in this case from a Polydor set. The 78s sound less scuffy here than the Mozart. The Prague Quartet had recorded this work in 1937 and one can’t help noting their more fluent techniques and greater elegance as regards phrasing and corporate tone. Still, in their more blunt and straightforward way the Ondřček prove convincing exponents, not least in their rhythmic energy and the affecting lyricism of their slow movement, complete with deft slides. Far less subtle and polished than the Prague though they may be, the Ondřček bring out the geniality of Dvořk’s writing, preferring avuncularity to finesse. The transfers are first class here and the Polydors used are very quiet indeed.

As a bonus there’s the Polka from Fibich’s Quartet No.1, a droll charmer sourced from a slightly noisy Ultraphon 78. Once again, the group proves wholly adept at characterisation.

As usual from Forgotten Records there are no notes though there’s a web link that can be pursued. It’s overwhelmingly the case that this label focuses on overlooked LPs but when it seeks out 78s it invariably does so with fine judgement, as it does here.

Jonathan Woolf

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