Concert Review
DVORAK CHAMBER MUSIC at Queen Elizabeth Hall 7 11 1999
Florestan Trio, Members of Vellinger Quartet etc., Helene Wold & Hilary Summers (singers) with Eugene Asti (piano)

This marathon Sunday afternoon and evening event offered an enticing overview of some of Antonin Dvorak's most popular chamber music plus a few lesser-known pieces. However, no new insight resulted from such concentrated exposure, the more tantalising after Jan Smaczny (who had recently completed a Life and Works book on Dvorak) stressed in his talk the wildness of Dvorak's earlier music. Examples of "the composer he might have been", thought Smaczny, are suggested by the youthful Cypress songs, which pointed towards Janacek and Debussy, and the extraordinary 40 mins single movement E minor quartet of 1869 towards Schönberg, neither of which we heard.

Dvorak turned his back upon radical innovation, opting instead for the easier style in which to express his melodic gifts, which had rewarded him with success in Prague and later in New York, where he received acclaim and substantial monetary reward. His fount of melodic inspiration made him one of the first composers whose music was received enthusiastically at first and have remained prominently in the international repertoire for so long.

In New York Dvorak became a diligent and revered teacher at a forward looking Conservatoire and played an important part in exploring black American music and encouraging composition students to draw upon that heritage rather than German models. Dvorak had known real poverty in his early years, and he empathised with the emancipated blacks in their struggle for artistic identity. His influence helped towards a validation for black musicians, attracting the hostility of some more conventional composers, like MacDowell. He found great happiness in the thrusting energy and optimism of New York, and in Spillville, an American Czech settlement.

The programme book was better than average, with texts and translations of the songs, good, substantial analytic notes by Jan Smaczny, and illuminating interviews with the participating musicians by Anthony Burton.

The world premiere of Dvorak and America, a film by Carra & Cotnoir, gave a vivid picture of Dvorak's importance to the musical development of that emerging society and the affection in which he was held. Cut sharply, with telling close up images, it was the best reason for spending so many hours at the QEH.

The performances were good to very good. We heard two pianists, two singers, three violinists and three cellists in various combinations, nicely varied as the sessions went on. Small, bright voiced and winning in manner, the Norwegian soprano Helene Wold was vocally well matched with the very tall Hilary Summers, one of a now rare breed, the genuine contralto. Accompanied by Eugene Asti they sensibly interposed Gypsy Songs solos amongst a group of Moravian Duets. The string quintet Op 97 and the Terzetto Op 74 for two violins and viola were, surprisingly, and somehow even more sonorous more successful than the sextet Op 48, with Stephanie Gonley's drive and enthusiasm setting the tone. (Before tackling Dvorak's string quartets for the first time, the Vellingers had decided to work first on these pieces for more or fewer than four players.)

Being a pianist myself, I may be biased, but for me it was Susan Tomes's chamber music expertise which remains my most precious memory of the Dvorak day. Her musicianship shone brightly in the ever-popular Op 81 piano quintet, the trio Op 65 and the Romantic Pieces with Anthony Marwood, violin, always sensitive in give and take, making the melodies sing, textures transparent, tone pellucid (I had to check that it was really a Steinway!). Susan Tomes and Anthony Marwood have Dvorak's duos for violin and piano on Hyperion CDA66934.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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