Bohemia and America find sumptuous musical celebration in these two large chamber works of Dvorak.

DVORAK: String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97; String Sextet in A Major, Op. 48 – Jerusalem String Quartet/ Veronika Hagen, viola/ Gary Hoffman, cello – Harmonia mundi HMM 902320, 66:57 (1/19/18) [Distr. by PIAS] ****: 

Recorded 14-17 January 2017, these two large string works testify to Dvorak’s master of forms that parallel compositions in the oeuvre of his musical mentor, Johannes Brahms, who had been mightily impressed with Dvorak’s  Strains from Moravia.  The 1878 Sextet in A Major—created in the brief span of thirteen days—gained the attention of Joseph Joachim, in whose home the work had its premiere by the Joachim Quartet, and so afforded Dvorak recognition beyond his native Bohemia. The opening movement, Allegro moderato, conforms to the Classical models from the Austro-German tradition.  The first violin  (Alexander Pavlovksy) and cello (Kyril Ziotnikov) intone the sweet duet that sets the melodic impulse. Opinions will diverge as to whether the Slavonic, quietly folk-like materials sustain the broad development Dvorak imposes. The constant interchange of thematic fragments and derivatives likely nods to Schumann as much as to Brahms for the subsequent evolution.   Dvorak then inserts a persuasive Dumka, taken from the Ukrainian dance, proffers a lyrical song of alternating moods and rhythms. The sudden appearance of a lullaby in F-sharp Major ensues after a moment of gypsy fire. Another typical Bohemian dance follows, a Furiant, which reels and smokes in exemplary, quick fashion, but whose singular metric pulse with off-the-beat accents owes more to Beethoven than to folk music.  The last movement, Tema con variazione, is set as a theme and five variants. The viola (Ori Kam) provides the main, angular theme. The shifting harmonies, once in motion, follow circuitous routes through B minor and D Major, finally, in the last, volatile variation, asserting the home key of A major with authority. The etched interplay between first violin Pavlovksy and second violin Sergei Bresler defines much of the third variation. The use of pedal creates a kind of organ sonority this refined music.  Some soothing moments occur on flowing sixteenths in stretti when, suddenly, Dvorak lets loose  with a whirlwind coda that had been biding its time over the course of what had been otherwise gloomy variations.

In 1893, while on hiatus from his new position as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York, Dvorak sojourned to Spillville, Iowa, at the invitation of violinist Josef Kovarik. The area had been inhabited and developed by Czech immigrants, and therefore provided some degree of Bohemian familiarity to the often homesick composer. It was here, amidst rural and cultural comforts, that Dvorak composed both his“American” String Quartet and the String Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 97.

Given the second viola’s lead—here, courtesy of Veronika Hagen—of the main theme of the Allegro non tanto, we might well think that the F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 “Rasoumovsky” Quartet of Beethoven provides the model.  The somber, long-note theme Hagan introduces leads to a spirited, Bohemian tune that suggests drum beats, a significant feature of the quintet. The mood swings into G minor, soon to be countered by a progression into B-flat Major. The rhythmic interest maintains the music’s vitality, with pungent accents in the bass line or in the high violin.  An “Indian” motif emerges, certainly reminiscent of the modalities of the Op. 96 American Quartet, but no less of a more “symphonic composition. The long-delayed opening theme returns near the end of the recapitulation, then the introductory material, to bring the movement to a resolved conclusion.

Once more, the Beethoven F Major Rasoumovsky makes its presence known, as Hagen’s second viola taps out the strident, drum rhythm of the acerbic B Major Scherzo. The colossal vitality of this music breezes along, with all sorts of interior, agogic shifts. The middle section in the tonic minor asks the first viola’s input. The da capo takes us into A-flat Major. The middle section lyric makes another appearance, also, but in the major mode. The inventive construction of this movement more than fulfills Dvorak’s aim to emulate the Bonn master.

The Larghetto provides the heart of this chamber work, set in A-flat minor and proceeding in variation form.  Part of the melodic interest lies in Dvorak’s having considered “My Country “tis of Thee” for treatment.  When the first violin enters, it highlights the alternations of major and minor that suffuse this movement. The first violin will also trace a series of variants in transparent staccato; in the latter part, the second violin applies pizzicato figures . The fourth variation proves noteworthy, in that the cello proceeds with the other instruments in vague tremolos. Variation five allows Dvorak his passion in an outburst in the minor-mode version of the theme, only to relent into the major and so find some solace. The unbuckled, jaunty Finale: Allegro giusto proves to be a rondo in dotted rhythm whose interludes move more smoothly. Once more, a kind “Native American” motif infiltrates the texture, a drum-beat offered by the violin with plucked and bouncing accompaniment that can quite explode into a symphonic sonority.  A Bohemian tune, with national nostalgia, counters the Native dance. The cello’s rich texture underlies the aerial feats of the top instruments.

The Jerusalem Quartet and the two invited guests have made both Dvorak’s offerings sumptuous, elegant, and eminently attractive. The warm and pungent sound image, courtesy of Rene Moeller demands repeated hearings.

—Gary Lemco