INKPOT CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: DVOŘÁK String Quartets Nos.13 & 12 “American”. Vlach Quartet Prague (Naxos)
Antonn DVOŘÁK (1841-1904) String Quartet No.12 in F major, Op. 96 “American”
String Quartet No.13 in G major, Op. 106
Vlach Quartet Prague
by Isaak Koh
Antonin Dvorak is one of the greatest melodists in all music. His compositions are characterised by a strong sense of grace and taste, somewhat like a latter-day Mendelssohn. If I were to introduce someone to classical music, I would not play Beethoven, Haydn, Tchaikovsky or even Mozart. Dvorak is my choice. Eminently listenable, Dvorak is never difficult to come to grips with.
It is easy to hear why by listening to the ethereal music on this disc. Although Dvorak had a good degree of success in his native land of Bohemia (particularly with his two sets of Slavonic Dances), he is still more popularly known today for the works he composed in his time in America. Indeed, his Ninth Symphony “From the New World” is one of the most popular symphonies among both the critics and the public.
The “American” Quartet shares the same hummable quality as the “New World” Symphony. In 1893, Dvorak was persuaded by his student Josef Kovarik to visit his hometown of Spillville, Iowa. The town had a large Bohemian community, and Dvorak felt completely at home there. It was in this conducive environment that he composed the F major quartet in a short period of time, and played through it with the Kovariks. Despite having an enjoyable experience in America, Dvorak eventually returned home to resume his post as the professor of composition at the Prague Conservatory. The following year (1896), Dvorak completed his last two quartets in A flat, Op. 105 and in G major, Op. 106.
The Vlach Quartet Prague initially called themselves the New Vlach Quartet, the first violin Jana Vlachova being the daughter of Josef Vlach, the leader of the original ensemble. The new group produces music of the highest level on this disc. The “American” begins energetically, but the members naturally slow their playing to bring out the flow of the first movement. The themes merge seamlessly into one another, and one gets the sense that the Quartet deeply understands the heart and soul of Czech music. In other words, the music-making is spiritually convincing. The slow Lento (recently used in the winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film Kolya) is sensitively paced. The players bring out the beautiful melodic lines splendidly, extracting the achingly sweet pain that so effectively conveys Dvorak’s longing and yearning for his Czech homeland.
The birdcalls in the third movement are cheekily done, while the jaunty cowboy rhythms of the Finale (betraying a country/western influence) are effectively communicated. The only reservation (and it is very minor) is that the playing seemed a bit too muted and withdrawn near the end of the work. All doubts, however, were completely banished by the bravura finish which exuded nothing less that pure joy.
The G major quartet is an altogether darker work. The opening Allegro moderato does not have the bubbly excitement of the “American”, but the ensemble play with great panache. The mourning stateliness of the second movement is emphasised, and the group powerfully creates the emotive atmosphere. As a composition, it is less striking that the “American”, but is nevertheless worth having as a good example of Dvorak’s late chamber works.
In the wrong hands, the music of Dvorak can sound like quaint and pretty melodies. Any quartet performing these works must be alert enough to bring out the latent Romanticism in them. The Vlach Quartet Prague accomplish the near-impossible to creating — dare I say it? — perfect music on this CD. The amazingly palpable presence of the Naxos recording simply puts the bigger labels to shame. The sound on this disc is one of the most vivid I have heard. In chamber works, you want to hear every detail and to feel that you are actually facing the four members in a semicircle. This CD astoundingly recreates that effect.
With unerring intonation, fantastic engineering and, most importantly, a real spiritual connection with the music, the Vlach Quartet Prague have conjured a piece of musical magic here. I will not hesitate to recommend this CD even if it was full-price. It is a welcome addition to any music collection, and if the Vlach keep up this standard of expertise, it will not be exaggerating to say that this cycle will be one of the best ever.
This disc is available at (or can be ordered from) Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City), Borders (Wheelock Place), HMV (The Heeren) and Sing Discs (Raffles City).
Isaak Koh is finally completing Warcraft II. He has been very busy writing Inkpot articles.
Other classical music reviews by this or any other writer can be obtained from the InkVault by doing a key word search with the writer’s name.
033: c.1997. up.30.3.1999 Isaak Koh