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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 8 in E major, op. 80 (1876) [26:33]
String Quartet No. 10 in E flat major, op. 51 (1878) [30:51]
Albion Spring Quartet
rec. 2018, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, UK

As a young man, Dvořák played the viola in café bands around Prague and in the orchestra of the Provisional Theatre, the forerunner of the Czech Philharmonic. Then during the 1870s his creative talents began to be recognised, and he was awarded the Austrian State Prize, a grant aimed at helping 'young, poor and talented artists', by which time, he was already in his mid-thirties.

Among the compositions which heralded his ‘coming of age’ as a composer were these quartets, and particularly the E flat Quartet, Opus 51.  A glance at the Opus numbers of the two, placed side by side, shows that Fritz Simrock, his publisher, was playing fast and loose the with exact identity of the E major Quartet, which strictly speaking should be listed as Opus 27. The generally very informative insert notes and listings on this Signum issue ought really to have made this clearer, rather than have it tucked away within the text of Roger Parker’s brilliant and substantial notes, which are rather fuller than one might reasonably expect to find in a book on the composer.

Dvořák had a foot in both camps, as a follower of Brahms, who admired him greatly, and as a Czech nationalist. In fact, no composer of the later 18th Century showed a greater loyalty to the classical quartet tradition than did Dvořák, and recognising this duality is fundamental to an appreciation of his art.

Take the opening movement of Opus 80, for example, with its reliance on fugal techniques, which are articulated with thoughtful clarity by the Albion players, whose attention to details of dynamics are exemplary here, aided by the warm acoustic of the Britten Studio at Snape. The two inner movements are strongly characterised, too, including a central trio in the third movement which gains a good deal from its drive and intensity. There is also a notable role for the viola in the final movement, reflecting the fact that it was Dvořák’s own instrument.

Dvořák composed his String Quartet in E flat major following a commission from the Florentine Quartet, which ensured it an immediate performance, which had not been the case with Opus 27/80. After the recent success of the first set of Slavonic Dances for piano duet, this commission specifically asked for music ‘of a Slavonic character’. Although there is the traditional sequence of four movements, many features of the Quartet are deliberately nationalist. First, however, there is a skilfully worked sonata form Allegro, whose delightfully tuneful material sets the tone from the beginning. The Albion Quartet place their emphasis on the music’s lyricism, and thus the wistful coda anticipates the nature of the second movement, which is a stylised dumka (slow dance) that Dvořák gave the subtitle elegia. Again, this is sensitive and delicate music, with a berceuse (cradle song) as the second theme. At the centre of the movement, however, there is the complete contrast of a fast dance (furiant), which is not unduly indulged here, before the dumka returns.

The third movement, entitled Romanza, is a warm and lyrical nocturne led by the singing line of the violin, and this movement too is marked Andante con moto. The Albion place the emphasis very much on the ‘Andante’ aspect rather than the ‘con moto’, and there is room for more contrast between the two than they choose to find.

This serves to emphasise the contrast brought by the finale, however, which is generally exuberant in character, featuring distinctive and lively rhythms based on another Czech dance, the skocná.

Terry Barfoot

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