DVORAK & SCHUBERT:  ‘American’ and ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartets – Channel Classics

DVORAK & SCHUBERT:  String Quartets ‘American’ & ‘Death and the Maiden’ – Channel Classics 39147, 64:17 (5/26/17) *****:

The debut recording of a powerhouse Chinese ensemble featuring central works of the string quartet repertoire. 

Midway through the Dragon String Quartet’s vivid reading of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”, I realized that this was not just another young ensemble straight out of conservatory aiming to establish itself in the Classical World. Rather, we have the assembling of a “supergroup,” comprised of players of international reputation — Ning Feng, first violinist and founder of the group, has earned a large reputation as a soloist with several recordings for the prestigious Channel Classics label; Wang Xiaomao is the concertmaster of the China National Ballet Orchestra; Zheng Wenxiao is the principal Viola of Bayerischen Rundfunks; cellist Qin Liwei is a celebrated solo recording artist with Decca.

The collective choice to move from the bright lights of the big concert stage to the more cloistered world of chamber music shows real commitment. This debut recording arrives four years after the founding of the group in 2012, and the preparation shows. The choice of repertoire is significant: arguable the two most well-known quartets of all, the exact center of the string quartet literature. The pairing is common too, both on the chamber music stage and in recordings. As for recorded versions, there is a superabundance, which raises the question of what new insight or angle this newly formed quartet was hoping to discover.

The group looks as celebratory and mirthful as the Golden State Warriors bench in the fourth quarter of one of their 40 point blowouts. (Compare them with the serious focus of the Emerson quartet on their 2016 issue of the same Dvorak piece.)  Their confidence is not misplaced, The dramatic Allegro of the Schubert D. 810 requires the most exact, forward-leaning voice entries. The pauses between two subjects should be hugely consequential. The shimmering semiquavers likewise are testing; one imprecision and they become hectically unpleasant. The Dragon String Quartet negotiates the enormous challenges of the long movement without straining for effect. Out of respect, I instantly decided to measure them by the ultimate standard of the Takács. The performances achieve parity in two areas: the beautifully transparent sonics and the exquisitely individual voices of the instruments. In terms of integration and overall feel for the Schubertian inner world, the Dragon approaches that peerless ensemble.

The many variations on “Death and the Maiden” allow each instrument to shine. Ning Feng’s stunning 1721 Stradivari, on private loan, makes an indelible impression, but no more than Li-Wei’s 1780 Joseph Guadagnini cello. There are viola passages, too, that are among Schubert’s most plangent utterances. In short, this is a feast for the ears.

The Scherzo: Allegro and Presto are animated but should still bear the characteristic cantabile which can easily be compromised by a mere feeling of virtuosity. The group is on the edge here, but one thing is certain; there is tremendous excitement and spirit to their playing.

As for the Dvorak “American”, again we are dealing with the most familiar string quartet music, and it is not easy to set aside listening habits. If there is a point of contact between this 1893 fan favorite and the arch-romantic “Death and the Maiden”, it lies in the Lento movement. Probably Dvorak’s most beautiful “song” ever, it breathes the Schubertian air and evokes melancholy rambles or a receding happiness. I might have tried a comparison with the Takács, but not wanting to burst into tears at the sound of Edward Dusinberre’s fiddle, I resolutely proceeded to the vibrant Molto vivace, the bright optimism of which does a lot to clear the air. Again, there are remarkably keening viola passages. The Finale, a lively folk dance with artful rustic touches, shows off one more virtue of this talented ensemble: their lightness. They are incapable of overemphasis or asperity. One could say that beside their towering artistic genius, they have very good manners.

This could be the group that moves into the spot vacated by the now defunct Tokyo String Quartet. It is a tremendous debut and very well recorded. The liner notes are brief and unambitious in terms of musicological context, but perhaps this relatively uncomplicated and well-known music requires little explanation.

—Fritz Balwit

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