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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No.12 in F major, Op. 96 ‘American’ [26:40]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)
String Quartet No.1 in E minor ‘From My Life’ [26:32]
Tokyo String Quartet
rec. February 2006, Richard B. Fisher Centre for the Performing Arts, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU 807429 [53:21]

Many, like myself, will be sad to hear of the Tokyo Quartet’s disbanding in July 2013. This has been a reluctant decision for them after their longest serving members, the second violin Kikuei Ikeda and viola Kazuhide Isomura, decided to retire. Founded in 1969 at the Juilliard School of Music, and in existence for 44 years they have been at the top of their game, and they leave behind a legacy of very fine recordings.
This CD of late romantic chamber music, by the two Czech composers Dvořák and Smetana, is their valedictory recording. What a way to bow out!
In 1882, Dvořák accepted the post as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. For this he received an annual salary of $15,000, a considerable sum in those days. A year later in 1893, he took a vacation in Spillville, Iowa, where there was a Bohemian community. It was here that he composed his ‘American’ Quartet, Op. 96 in just fifteen days, in a burst of feverish creativity. He had not long completed his Symphony in E minor ‘From the New World’. This Quartet was to become his most celebrated chamber work. Dvořák’s motive for going to New York was ostensibly to imbibe American culture. Whilst there he researched African-American and Native-American music. These influences were absorbed into his ‘American compositions’ (the E minor Symphony, the Op. 96 Quartet and the String Quintet, Op.97).
The Tokyo Quartet play the Dvořák with great ardour and commitment. The performance is imbued with warmth and intimacy. I listened to the performance several times in conjunction with the other recordings of this work in my collection. The work opens with shimmering strings ushering in the ‘big tune’ on the viola. I thought the Tokyo’s sound was more immediate and vivid than the Prague Quartet (DG 463 165). They also achieve more warmth and expressivity in the beautiful second subject. The Panocha on Supraphon (SU 3815) delivers a more intense performance with more forward momentum, again in good sound. The Janáček Quartet (DG 474 010), making allowances for the age of the 1956 recording, are more sprightly.
I love the way in the Lento movement that the violin melody is lovingly shaped against the accompanying strings by the Tokyo. As the movement progresses the dialogue between the four instruments opens out. Again, the Panocha captivates the listener with their lyricism and sheer passion.
After the melancholic sublimity of the second movement, the final two movements are more upbeat and of a sunny disposition. At this point, I part company with the Janáček and Prague, in deference to the Tokyo and the Panocha who have the slight edge. The Tokyo Quartet offer great warmth and sensitivity, and an immediacy and intimacy which draws the listener in. However, the Panocha seem more irresistible in having all these qualities plus the added bonus of more clarity and definition, striking in the jaunty syncopations of the finale.
Smetana is regarded as the father of Czech music. Apart from several minor works written in his youth, he composed only four substantial chamber works. 1874 was a momentous year for him. He had reached the landmark age of fifty and suffered encroaching deafness, which resulted in him resigning his post, forcing an early retirement. He moved to a village in north Bohemia, where he became dependent on his daughter and her husband. He was to spend his remaining years in composition.
In 1876 he set to work composing his first string quartet. It was completed by the end of the year. Given the title ‘From My Life’, it is an autobiographical portrait. He charts the progress of his life from the joys of youth, love and art, to the final movement which speaks of his growing awareness of the deafness which was to shroud his life. By 1884 this was to result in a complete mental collapse, and the ending of his days in an institution.
The quartet opens like the Dvořák with the shimmering strings heralding the viola tune, but this time it is cast in a darker vein. Dvořák had played the viola in the first private airing of the work, and it became a source of inspiration for his ‘American’ Quartet. The Tokyo Quartet play with passionate intensity, and deep conviction. The second movement is extremely well phrased and characterized. The ensemble is taut. The Dante Quartet on Hyperion CDA67845 do not have as much swagger here.
The Tokyo conjures up nostalgia and yearning in the slow movement. There is real beauty of sound. Then we come to the finale which is well articulated. There is much sharper and clearer definition than in the Dante’s performance, which sounds a little congested in parts. Then the music is interrupted with a high-pitched note which Smetana described as ‘the fateful ringing of the high-pitched tones in my ears’. The opening viola theme is recalled and the quartet ends quietly and darkly. You feel, by the end of the work, that the Tokyo has taken you on a journey.
These are compelling versions by the Tokyo Quartet of two masterpieces of Czech nationalistic composers. They stand up well in a competitive field where there is no shortage of excellent recordings. The eponymous Smetana Quartet were closely associated with the Smetana work. I listened to the Supraphon 1985 studio version (C37S-7339) and the BBC Legends live 1965 RFH performance. Whilst these are benchmark recordings, the Tokyo offers an alternative in state-of-the-art sound.
Booklet notes and presentation are admirable. I definitely give the thumbs-up to this recording.
Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Insdex: Dvorak 'American' quartet