BBC Legends BBCL 4180-2, 70:17 (Distrib. Koch) ****:
The ensemble known as the Smetana Quartet (1945-1989) underwent various personnel transformations, but the four musicians inscribed in these two concerts from BBC Studios, London, 24 January 1969 and Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 2 February 1975 (Dvorak A-flat Quartet) represent the most familiar, finely-meshed grouping: Jiri Novak, violin; Lubomir Kostecky, violin; Milan Skampa, viola; and Antonin Kohout, cello. The opening work, Dvorak’s String Trio or Terzetto, the composer wrote for himself to accompany two violinist friends. Despite the occasional, spare severity of the scoring, the music perks up considerably in the Scherzo section and in the colorful variants of the last movement, which in several respects recalls the last movement of Smetana‚s From My Life Quartet. Another influence would seem to be Mozart’s K. 563 Divertimento, a piece Dvorak openly admired.
Violinist Jiri Novak served as concertmaster for conductor Vaclav Talich’s Czech Chamber Orchestra, and so he was well acquainted with the Janacek style. Having Janacek scholar Milan Skampa on viola meant that every annotated detail had been verified, especially those passages of the Janacek’s First Quartet that owe dramatic debts to Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, with its premise that Beethoven’s famous duo is ineluctably linked to fatal passions. A hothouse-fever mentality permeates the entire work, but especially its second movement whose middle section–Energico e appassionato–sends decisive chills through its ambling polka shaken by powerful tremolandi and obsessive repeated patterns. An angst close to Bartok’s heart saturates the Con moto section. High, screeching or plaintive trills, a sudden sawing from the strings, and then bleak, serpentine melodies. The last movement has first violin concertante, declaiming against whirling figures and an equally painful melody in the cello. The brew boils before us in expressionistic frenzy, a musical equivalent of Munch’s The Scream. At the last note, a moved but disturbed audience applauds tentatively.
No such anxieties bother the perfect inscription of Dvorak’s A-flat Quartet, whose rapt beauties were first revealed to me via the Prague Quartet‚s splendid record for DGG. The Smetana Quartet is more rustic in sound than the polished Prague ensemble, extending Dvorak’s quartet style out of the Haydn (and Schubert) tradition. Like all of Dvorak’s late compositions, the structural elements unfold seamlessly, and we are in the throes of the development section before we know what hit us. The dappled light of the Scherzo (Molto vivace) many times provided the Smetana’s standard encore piece. Cellist Kohout’s bass line is a lush anchor while Novak’s violin sails into the musical ether. We can hear distinct textural references from The Golden Spinning Wheel. A wintry chill crosses the sweet melodic terrain of the Lento e molto cantabile, bittersweet moment from the master. Kohout’s deep resonance opens the elastic Allegro non tanto, a fiery village dance obligated to Breughel and to Beethoven at once. Mounted on epic, symphonic scale, rife with polyphony as well as Bohemian lyricism, the movement conveys that once-upon-a-time sentiment rampant in Dvorak‚s mature craft. The whirlwind coda sweeps the British audience away, a tumult of well-earned approbation.
— Gary Lemco