Classical Reissue Reviews

DVORAK: String Quintet in E-flat Major; String Sextet in A Major – The Raphael Ensemble – Helios

This reissue of the 1989 bears all of its original charm, two lucid and affectionate readings of inventive string ensemble works by the wonderful Dvorak.

Published on December 25, 2012

DVORAK: String Quintet in E-flat Major; String Sextet in A Major – The Raphael Ensemble – Helios

DVORAK: String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97; String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48 – The Raphael Ensemble – Helios CDH55405, 65:32 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Originally recorded 15-16 June 1988 and issued in 1989 on the Hyperion label, this spirited combination of Dvorak works, composed some fourteen years apart – the Sextet in 1878 and the Quintet in 1892 – presents them in as “symphonic”  a light as possible. The Sextet has not the staying power of the later Quintet, though its basically Schubertian lines offer the usual plethora of melodies rife with the Slavonic sensibilities of rhythm and vibrant color.

The String Quintet, a product of Dvorak’s sojourn to America to assume the directorship of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, rings with the fruitful homesickness that expresses itself in fertility of the imagination in every bar of music. Taking its cue from Mozart’s opera in the form with added viola, Dvorak’s work gains more by way of the Kickapoo Indians who visited him at his residence in Spillville, Iowa among fellow Czech ex-patriates.  The first two movements of the work easily invoke our recognition of ideas in the New World Symphony. The excellently warm and fluid application of the bows in the Scherzo makes the Allegro vivo – in its buzzing dance and elegiac Trio section – a thing of infectious beauty. Indian tunes inform the opening movement and the haunted Larghetto with a special ardor of place, especially provided by the violas’ colors. In variation form, major and minor, the music of the third movement assumes the dignity of a quiet chorale. If the influence of Schubert’s E-flat Major Piano Trio can be felt in the Finale: Allegro giusto, it serves merely as a reference point for an independent line of thought, thoroughly idiomatic to the textures at hand. The American Record Guide’s judgment of 1989 of a performance “warmly effusive. . .captured in exquisite sound” still applies.

Dvorak composed his Sextet in A Major around the time of his Slavonic Dances, and in 1879 the music found a happy reception at the home of violinist Joseph Joachim. The first movement Allegro moderato is more to be praised for its inventive sense of modulation than for its melodic currency, which cannot quite support the weight of Dvorak’s expansive development. The influence of Brahms seems well nigh, especially in that composer’s Op. 18 String Sextet; but in this case the “learned” polyphony seems forced. The second movement, Dumka: “Elegie”: Poco allegretto, however, takes a different course, relying on the moody shifts of the Ukrainian dance form that happily escapes the rigors of the German models. Gypsy tunes in asymmetrical metrics keep our attention on a march that segues into an uneasy lullaby.  The violins of James Clark and Elizabeth Wexler sound luxurious in this rendition.

Dvorak marks his third movement Furiant; but like his third movement in the Piano Quintet, Op. 81, he avoids the cross-rhythms that invest his most natural expression of the form in the Sixth Symphony, Op. 60. The vigorous music Dvorak does supply us can hardly be called a disappointment, and here The Raphael Ensemble injects a bitingly delicious sense of brio. The last movement: Finale: Tema con variazioni suffers from that same “academic” ethos that hampers the first movement. A theme in B Minor proceeds, Allegretto grazioso, quasi andantino through five variants and polyphonic stretti that, in an imitation of Beethoven, prolong the coup de grace beyond its means. For the Dvorak enthusiast, however, any formal criticism is just a poor man’s cavil in the face of genius, so enjoy these “delightful works, delightfully played,” to recall Gramophone’s verdict.

—Gary Lemco

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