DVORAK: String Quintet, Sextet – Jerusalem Quartet – Harmonia mundi 

by | May 23, 2018 | Classical CD Reviews

A beautifully played coupling of two contrasting and important works.

DVORAK: String Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97; String Sextet in A, Op. 48 – Jerusalem Quartet, Veronica Hagen, viola/ Gary Hoffman, cello – Harmonia mundi HMM 902320, 66:57 ****:

One could not provide a better contrast of early and late Dvorak. The Sextet, an unusual ensemble to begin with, did not particularly bother the 36-year-old composer, freshly radiant from the success of his first book of Slavonic Dances for piano four hands. Chamber music was, after all, his preferred medium, and he was anxious to transfer the newly-minted discover of nationalistic tunes to other ensembles. So, by May of 1878, the new String Sextet appeared, complete with folkloric colorations and hummable ideas all couched within the traditional strictures of sonata form, modeled no less on Brahms’s own efforts. The latter, who was genuinely astounded by the fecundity of ideas coming from his Slavic comrade, said that “anyone could pick up their main themes from his rejects.” This work, full of the abandonment of a composer really getting his grove on, shows the signs of a composer hitting his stride in full flush, daring the audience not to like it. And they did.

Fast forward to 1893, when a fully mature Dvorak found himself in Spillville, Iowa, for four summer months in the midst of a large immigrant Czech community. This came as welcome relief after seasons at the National Conservatory in New York City, where he had taken a lucrative position as its director in 1891. The New World Symphony emerged from that city-born experience, but the composer was to find even more inspiration while in Iowa, resulting in the F-major “American” Quartet, and soon after, this Opus 97 Quintet. Compared to the earlier Sextet, the Quintet is astonishingly varied in its developmental sequences, nationalism and color even more intense, and the general complexities of the piece far more detailed and powerful than anything that came before. It is a piece that is not played as much as the “American”, and certainly not the New World, but is as deserving as any accolades heaped on those masterpieces. Probably the orchestration has something to do with it, quintets always having to be put on with the added player, but this work is a superb example of the genre by any standard.

The Jerusalem Quartet is one of my favorites these days, and what they give us certainly does not disappoint, their burnished sound and intensity-laden depth of interpretation enthralling from start to finish. There are other fine readings of these pieces, but for contrast and excitement—not to mention excellent sonic qualities—this one is going to be hard to beat.

—Steven Ritter


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