B00A6U5BNK DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96; SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, “From My Life” – Tokyo String Quartet – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807429, 53:21 ****:
Here are two beloved chamber works by the two greatest Czech nationalist composers, so very different in the stories behind them. Dvořák’s “American” Quartet is the product of a happy summer spent in the little Czech community of Spillville, Iowa, during his tenure as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. It’s a purely musical tribute to his time spent in America and to his hope for American composers, that they would find and celebrate a truly native music in the indigenous material of their own country. Smetana’s Quartet “From My Life,” on the other hand, is a chamber-music tone poem that tells the story of his own life from the beginning of his embrace of a musical future to the tragedy of his mature years, a composer increasingly cut off from the musical community by deafness and eventual madness.
There’s a happy, bucolic spontaneity about Dvořák’s quartet that speaks to the wide-open spaces of the prairie, and I’ve often thought the syncopated Vivace last movement almost seems to paint the picture of a jaunt across those spaces in a fast-moving buggy or some other conveyance. But if there’s any program to the piece, Dvořák remained mum, observing his usual formal decorum within the context of his melody-rich, spontaneous-seeming music. The pentatonic melodies have seemed to some ears a reflection of and exemplification of Dvořák’s formula for a truly American-based classical music. The melody in the second movement sounds like some sort of lamenting Native American tune. But in time critics came to realize that the music Dvořák wrote in America, including the New World Symphony, don’t really sound a lot different from the pastorale, pentatonic music he wrote in Bohemia. And as Gavin Plumely relates, at one point Dvořák grew so sick of the idea he was writing specifically American music while a guest in the foreign land that he flared, “So I am an American composer am I? I was, I am, and I remain a Czech composer. I have only showed them the path they might take. . .how they should work. But I’m through with that! From this day forward I will write the way I wrote before.”
It’s not so surprising that Smetana’s quartet should have more programmatic references than Dvořák’s. From the start, Smetana was allied with the progressives of European music, writing tone poems and national operas long before Dvořák tried his hand at them and like any good progressive, even getting himself mixed up in the revolutions of 1848 (though unlike Wagner, he didn’t have to flee his country for political reasons). Like the Quartet No. 1, Smetana’s powerful Piano Trio in G Minor (1855) is programmatic in nature, reflecting his tragic feelings over the loss of his two young daughters within a year of each other. The quartet tells a happier story for the most part, though it has its pages of dark drama as well. It starts with a turbulent E-minor melody that, according to Smetana reflects his “youthful leanings toward art, a Romantic atmosphere, the inexpressible yearning for something I could neither express nor define.” The second melody is a tender major-key one, bringing some relaxation, though the restless first tune dominates the fiery development section and quiet coda. In stark contrast, the second movement is a happy polka, representing Smetana’s commitment to treating the music of his native Bohemia.
The slow movement is beautifully expressive of tenderer feelings, maybe of love of family or country—or both—while the finale begins in sheer jubilation, one of Smetana’s most unbridled gestures. But then toward the end of the movement the music is interrupted by a sustained E sounded by the first violin, “the fateful ringing of the high-pitched tones in my ears.” This was tinnitus brought one by tertiary-stage syphilis, which would send him to a mental institution and early death eight years later.
Meeting the needs of these two different pieces, the Tokyo String Quartet brings more restless ardor and volatility to the Smetana than to the Dvořák—except in the finale of the “American Quartet,” where the Tokyo is as unbridled as just about any group I’ve heard in this music. The quartet’s approach to Dvořák’s first movement, in contrast, a little more staid, or at least relaxed, than other interpretations that I’ve favored over the years. I recall my first encounter with this music was in a closely miked recording by the Julliard Quartet, who played with an almost fierce intensity, especially given the unrefined recording that captured their playing. But the movement is, after all, marked Allegro ma non troppo, and the Tokyo’s tempo is spot-on even if the temperature of their performance is a little low. Otherwise, I think these are excellent readings, especially that of the Smetana, where the Tokyo’s usually refined playing is turned very successfully to the service of this passionate and sometimes explosive music. Harmonia mundi supplies the typically suave and truthful surround-sound recording that the Tokyo have enjoyed since beginning their relationship with the label. Recommended, even if your collection, like mine, is not lacking for recordings of this great music.