DVOŘÁK: String Quintet in G; Nocturne; String Quintet: (Scherzo) – Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet – PentaTone

by | Mar 2, 2012 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

DVOŘÁK: String Quintet in G, Op. 77; Nocturne, Op. 40; String Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97: Allegro vivo (Scherzo) – Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet – PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 458, 46:02 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:
The notes to the present recording quote Dvořák as saying, “Conceiving an idea is, in and of itself, nothing special. . . . On the other hand, executing the idea well and creating something great from it: that is the difficult part—that is art!” Note-writer Franz Steiger adds that it actually took a long time for the musical world to realize the hard work of crafting and revision that Dvořák put into his compositions. I recall that when I started seriously listening to the symphonies of Dvořák, I came across the liner notes to a recording, made around 1960, that conceded Dvořák was a popular composer but dismissed him as a compositional lightweight, not the equal of other late-nineteenth-century masters. How our ideas have changed in the last fifty-some years!
A mark against Dvořák in some quarters is a near superflux of easy-flowing melody that positions him as a sort of latter-day Schubert. As with Schubert, it seems natural to assume that any composer from whom music seems to flow so effortlessly can’t be a diligent craftsman. The Quintet Op. 77 instantly gives the lie to that thinking. The usual profusion of gorgeous melody is there, of course, but so is a closely argued sonata-allegro first movement and seamlessly constructed rondo finale, both of which speak to informed craftsmanship. This is one of three string quintets Dvořák wrote, the first appearing in 1861 (Op. 1) and the last in 1893 (Op. 97), a classic of the composer’s years in America. Both are scored for string quartet with an additional viola part. Intriguingly, Dvořák scored Op. 77 for string quartet and double bass, which gives it an imposing, nigh-orchestral resonance, dutifully captured in this PentaTone SACD recording.
As with others of Dvořák’s compositions, the opus number is misleading. Though composed in 1875 and given the opus number 18 by the composer, when his publisher Simrock wanted to bring the work out in 1883, they jacked-up the opus number in the hopes of similarly bolstering sales figures. Originally, the Quintet contained five movements, but in the year of its publication, Dvořák extracted the brief Nocturne movement and published it as a separate composition with the opus number 40. So it makes sense to include this work along with the Quintet, both played with real style and spirit by the Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet and accorded big (maybe even bigger than life), imposing sound with PentaTone’s usual sensibly realistic approach to surround recording.
Otherwise, this release baffles me. It includes just the scherzo from Dvořák’s “American” Quintet, supposedly based on Indian dances he heard performed in the Bohemian community of Spillville, Iowa, where he was summering in 1893. This is an unusually spirited performance, but it uses the same instrumentation as the Op. 77 Quintet. Couldn’t PentaTone have included the entire Op. 97, which is only a little over thirty minutes long in performance? And couldn’t the Berlin players have scared up another violist among their colleagues and let the double bass sit this one out?
I’m not sure that the sponsorship of Bower & Wilkins Loudspeakers helps to explain the program. The recording was made with B&W speakers set up in a surround configuration, and as I’ve noted, the results are excellent. But why the tremendously short timing, and why the rescoring of the Op. 97 Scherzo, I can’t say. If the concept behind this recording truly appeals, then except for the matter of poor value, there’s no reason to hesitate.
—Lee Passarella

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