SMETANA: String Quartet No. 1 in E Minor, “From My Life”; DOHNANYI: String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, Op. 15; Spirituals: Go Down Moses; Swing Low Sweet Chariot; Deep River; POCHON: Irish Cradle Song; Traditional: Irish Reel; Sally in Our Alley; Turkey in the Straw – Flonzaley String Quartet
Pristine Audio PACM 068, 70:20 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Among the pioneers of chamber music ensembles in the early days of both acoustical and electrical recordings, the Flonzaley Quartet (1902-1929) stands out as a true inspiration, esteemed for their inscriptions of the Brahms and Schumann piano quintets, with Harold Bauer and Ossip Gabrilowitsch, respectively.
Producer Mark Obert-Thorn has resuscitated in fine sound the 20 March 1929 Smetana first quartet, recorded for RCA at their Camden, New Jersey studios for M-63. Their recording of the 1876 “confessional” quartet From My Life by Smetana features exemplary playing from the ensemble’s viola, Nicolas Moldavan. His grainy incisive attacks in the first two movements, and especially in the visceral Polka, command enduring respect. The Largo sostenuto–admittedly an expression of ardent love personal and national–has cellist Iwan d’Archambreau in plaintive figures, answered by the two upper strings, Adolfo Betti and Alfred Pochon, the latter of whom arranged the folk and traditional tunes included in this collection. Betti’s piercing nasal tone leads the series of meditations that occasionally swell to tragic anguish and a sense of imminent loss. The organ sound of the four players in the unisono passages quite assaults our sympathy for the tragedy in Smetana’s emotional life. The last movement with its sustained, high E – emergent in the midst of an otherwise vibrant dance – that indicates the obsessive tone in Smetana’s ears, rings with bitter devastation, the descending chords reminiscent of the saddest Schubert.
The eclectic D Major Quartet of Ernst von Dohnanyi (1906) was recorded 20-21 October 1927 for RCA. Its heavily-breathed opening phrases of the Andante derive from Brahms, one of the composer’s early sponsors. The dark chromatics of the piece, accompanied by a cantering rhythm, suddenly dissolve with something like a Mendelssohn lightness, and there seem to emanate hints of that composer’s string octet. Mr. d’Archambeau’s cello punctuates the latter pages with a vivid pizzicato ostinato. The coda, meditative and lyrically effusive, ands on a note of romantic yearning. The finesse of the Flonzaley in the subsequent Presto acciacato in F Minor gets our blood pounding, the metrics and stringent sound combining to create a series of fantastic shadows on the wall. The trio section evaporates into a folkish mist, perhaps cross-fertilized by Debussy. The last movement combines a gloomy adagio with a more animated finale. Here, Dohnanyi, like compatriot Bartok, takes his cues from late Beethoven. In C-sharp Minor, it hearkens to the Beethoven Op. 131 in its slow counterpoint, punning as the enharmonic counterpart of the initial, first movement key. Violin Betti and cello d’Archambeau engage in heated colloquys that sizzle into an exalted D-flat Major through some 80 years of music history in their restored sound.
An instrumental “When Israel was in Egypt’s land” opens the first of the spirituals, Go Down, Moses, intoned by the Flonzaley Quartet (11 February 1926). Swing Low, Sweet Chariot has all the resonance of a small choir, shades of Paul Robeson. The Flonzaley, having used Sweet Chariot as a trio, segue back to Go Down, Moses. Deep River (4 January 1927) allows the sweet tone of Adolfo Betti its moment in Paradise, just over Jordan, where viola Moldavan takes us onto camp ground, the ensemble piously devotional. Irish Cradle Song (10 February 1926) might easily have been sung by John McCormack or even James Joyce, and a fine calming tune it is. Irish Reel (4 January 1927) has the ambiance of country barn dance, the first violin weaving in and out with raspy help from the lower strings. Sally in Our Alley is an Olde English Ayre, rather mournful and nostalgic (rec. 3 May 1929). Turkey in the Straw (30 April 1929) enjoys that jerky acerbic fizzle that has us dancing and moving to the buffet table at once. The feast courtesy of excellent restoration, this disc moves early into the Best of the Year recommendations.