Even as Dvořák chamber music goes, the D minor quartet
is a big-boned score; the first movement alone clocks in at
twenty-two minutes. While it brims with appealing melody, the
writing is unusually polyphonic: here and there, an innocuous-sounding
chordal accompaniment will, without warning, bubble into contrapuntal
life. It thus proves a near-ideal vehicle for the Vlach Quartet
Prague's linear style.
That last distinction may seem nonsensical. String playing,
after all, is by nature a linear, melody-based process, "horizontal"
where, say, the piano lends itself more readily to producing
"vertical" blocks of sound. The Vlach players, more than most
quartets I've heard, allow the textures to blossom from the
interplay of individual lines. They certainly know how to "land"
the big homophonic moments, as their direct, energetic attack
at 1:19 of the scherzo demonstrates. Elsewhere, however, those
chords that do occur seem to arrive almost incidentally to the
logic of the counterpoint.
The first movement sprawls, not because the writing is discursive
- the structure is surprisingly clear, even on first hearing
- but simply because of the length of the theme-groups. This
performance of it sounds well-organized and expressive. The
opening attack, while gentle, is forthright, the long-breathed
cantabile theme already moving with clear purpose. The
second theme's dotted rhythms at 1:39 are lithe and springy,
yet unobtrusively projected; the third subject, counterpoint
and all, is delicately intoned.
In the Andantino, the players explore a nuanced palette
of colours and dynamics. The melancholy opening flows, so it
doesn't become maudlin; the yearning second subject, with its
pulsing accompaniment, makes a nice contrast. The theme of the
Allegro energico scherzo is a Czech patriotic song, but
the mood is cheerful rather than formally anthem-like; after
a pause, the players launch the Trio section, in a contrasting
key, with easy, unforced unanimity. At the start of the Finale,
the players "lean" into the first theme so as to heighten its
metrical ambiguity: the upbeat sounds like a strong beat, which
will throw the unsuspecting listener off-balance later on, when
the scansion rights itself.
On the debit side, the tuning in a few open textures can be
wayward: the searching episode at 8:53 of the Andantino,
while brief, sounds particularly uncertain. Occasionally, the
violin tone turns grainy in soft passages and diminuendos.
While the players don't overdo the stretti in the home
stretch, the closing chords needed a bit more oomph; as it is,
the ending hangs fire.
Still, this isn't a score you'll often encounter, either in
concert or on disc. As far as I know, the Prague Quartet's more
conventionally textured account (DG) is only available in its
complete Dvořák quartet cycle. So, at Naxos prices,
this sensitive, stylish issue is worth checking out.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach,
see also review by Colin