DVORAK: String Quartet No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 34; Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81; String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97; String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 “American” – Melos Quartett/ Karl Engel, piano/ Gerard Causse. Viola – Harmonia mundi

by | Oct 29, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

DVORAK: String Quartet No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 34; Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81; String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97; String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 “American” – Melos Quartett/ Karl Engel, piano/ Gerard Causse. Viola – Harmonia mundi HMX 2901509.10 (2 CDs), 72:02; 61:31 *****:

Originally issued 1995-1996, these smooth performances hold up remarkably well, especially the D Minor Quartet of 1880, in the midst of Dvorak’s so-called “Slavonic Period.” Having both played and studied the string quartets of Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert, Dvorak had become quite alert to the balancing of parts, especially of his favored lower strings, the viola and the cello. Peter Buck’s sonorous cello makes ravishing points in the course of the opening Allegro, and we can hear echoes of Schubert’s A Minor Quartet.

The second movement employs a full-blooded polka, a Czech national dance Fibich and Smetana likewise utilized in their own chamber pieces. The con sordino Adagio stands among Dvorak’s powerful laments, of which the Stabat Mater dominates. Wilhelm Melcher’s first violin sings a haunted melody close in spirit to Schubert’s famous Notturno for piano trio. The stunning pizzicato ostinato below the string line and then high up provides poignant shifts in texture. The heavily-breathed phrases, rife with melancholy, remind us that two of the composer’s beloved children, Otakar and Ruzena, had died in close succession when Dvorak composed the Stabat Mater. The rasping Poco allegro conveys dark menace in its urgency to resolve itself. Hermann Voss plies his viola with pungent authority in the midst of often symphonic sonorities.

The 1887 Piano Quintet is a work of sublime, pantheistic beauty, a composition by a master of the medium. Pianist Karl Engel, noted for his having accompanied Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the songs of Schubert, might have the repute as a scholastic or academic artist, but his playing here is lightly spontaneous, a rare application of sunshine and shadows. Peter Buck makes us wish Dvorak had composed a full-fledged cello sonata. Once again, Hermann Voss places his viola tone against the ripe piano sound to stunning effect, the polyphonic lines as the other instruments enter quite colossal. The peroration and coda urge every triumph of the spirit. The dumka from this great work is perhaps the autobiographical moment in Dvorak’s oeuvre. Episodically melancholic and excited, the movement has all principals attentive to each other’s parts, beautifully synchronized. The sonic presence of the recording pulsates with vibrant, rhythmic and textural life. The Furiant movement bristles with hearty, joyous excitement, the middle section a gossamer meditation. The Finale has Engel and the Melos Quartett rattling off a brisk polka in thumping fashion, homophonic and polyphonic bravura on all counts.

The two strings works offered on the second disc precisely match Dvorak’s order of composition and publication, June-August 1893. The String Quintet fuses both Native American, Black, and indigenous Bohemian elements into a rich broth whose tenor closely echoes the New World Symphony. Sonically conceived after the Mozart string quintets, the E-flat seamlessly evolves a nostalgic sense of romance into a dramatic cyclone of emotion that never lacks for color tapestry. Every emergent melody has the authenticity of a folk song. Joined by virtuoso violist Gerard Causse, the Melos Quartett plays in splendid ensemble, Causse’s distinctive tone a primus inter pares of rarified, liquid beauty. After the organ tones of the opening, the Scherzo nips at us with delighted, sharp edges. Causse’s plaintive trio subject over a pizzicato soon assumes mysterious, grand proportions. The Larghetto, with its sweet and energetic variants, balances eloquence and austerity at once. The group’s tremolandi are most effective. Back to Bohemia for the Allegro gusto of Schubertian simplicity and its countersubject of surpassing beauty. High violin and pizzicati underpinnings give us a Native American Indian dance of increasing intensity. Another cornucopia of Dvorak’s refreshing genius.

Over a stunning tremolando, Voss’ viola announces the long-familiar American Quartet, wrought into shapely phrases by the Melos Quartett, fluid and serenely poised. The two violins, Wilhelm Melcher and Ida Bieler, project razor sharp intonation against Peter Buck’s Paul Robeson cello. Lovely ensemble swells at cadences. If the opening movement were not passionate enough, the Lento burns incense at the altar of Native American melos, cross-fertilized by Bohemian folkways. Tragic intimacy. Lusty attacks for the Molto vivace, with excellent sound separation between upper strings‚ bird calls and the rasping cello. Full blooded pantheism for the trio. Fleet, joyous movement marks the Vivace ma non troppo, whose reel has all but actor Arthur Hunnicutt playing the first violin. Such a delicious set–why would any Dvorak acolyte be without it?

— Gary Lemco

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