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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 “American” (1893) [27:21]
String Quintet in E flat major, Op. 97 “American” (1893) [33:57]
Škampa Quartet: Helena Jiříkovská (violin); Adéla Štajnochrová (violin); Radim Sedmidubský (viola); Lukáš Polák (cello)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola) (Quintet)
rec. March and June 2015, Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK

These two well-loved works of Dvořák rarely turn up together on disc and for good reason, as string quartets tend to record the “American” Quartet with another quartet either by Dvořák or some other Czech composer, such as Smetana or Janáček. The equally fine String Quintet, requiring an extra viola for the fifth instrument, gets shortchanged unless the string quartet hires an additional violist. In reviewing the disc on hand I came across only one other that combines both works, that by the illustrious Talich Quartet on Calliope with Jiří Žigmund as extra violist. Thus, it’s good to have the two works together again on a single CD, since musically they have so much in common.

Dvořák composed both works over a very short time during the summer of 1893 while he and his family were residing in the agricultural community of Spillville, Iowa, which was settled by Czech immigrants. The composer was happy to be there, as he had been experiencing homesickness while in New York. Both compositions display elements of Native American and African-American influence, but more so of Dvořák’s own Bohemian folk culture—for example, the use of the pentatonic scale. However, the second theme in the finale of the quintet has a Native American flavour that is particularly apparent as played by the Emerson Quartet and violist Paul Neubauer (DG). I was not as aware of this suggestion in the accounts by the Talich and Smetana quartets, or the Škampa Quartet here—all native Czech ensembles.

There are so many recordings of the “American” Quartet around that I limited my comparison of the Škampa to the accounts by the Takács, Panocha, Talich, and Pavel Haas quartets. Against these the Škampa stands up very well and may be blessed with the best sound of all, though the 2010 recording of the Pavel Haas (Supraphon) is in the same class. All are worthy, even if I think the Takács today would improve on their 1989 performance (Decca), which is straightforward and played well with rhythmic drive, except for some approximate tuning in places, and the recording possesses some digital glare. It is interesting that theirs is the fastest performance at 25:47, whereas the Škampa take 27:21. The others referred to above all come in over 26, but under 27 minutes. All four Czech accounts are winning, with the Pavel Haas and the Škampa sounding the most sumptuous. There is little to choose between these two performances. Perhaps the Škampa are a bit warmer and more flexible, playing with a wonderful suppleness. They tend to take more time with the slow sections of the movements, but never seem unduly indulgent. As with the Pavel Haas Quartet, they perform this music as if second nature, from the heart. On the other hand, for sheer excitement, the Panocha (Supraphon) and Talich (Calliope) quartets are hard to beat. For now, though, I prefer the more relaxed and mellow performance of the Škampa Quartet.

My comparison for the String Quintet, Op. 97, in addition to the Emerson/Neubauer and Talich/Žigmund cited above, was with the venerable Smetana Quartet and violist Josef Suk (Supraphon) from 1986. Here the timings of the three comparative accounts are very close, slightly under 33 minutes, whereas the Škampa/ Chorzelski add almost a minute to their performance. Again their somewhat broader treatment pays dividends, especially in the marvelous slow movement, marked Larghetto, with variations. This is the real heart of the work in my opinion. It truly embodies the nostalgia Dvořák felt for his homeland. I cannot imagine a more deeply felt interpretation of this movement than that provided here. At the same time, their approach to the main subject of the second movement scherzo, marked Allegro vivo, is very vigorous and actually faster than that of the other performances with which I compared them. I found the rather slower tempo adopted by the other ensembles to give this theme greater rhythmic lift, but this is my only nitpick with the new account. The Škampa’s way with the finale, carefree and relaxed, won me over where the other groups may be a bit more incisive, especially concerning the main theme.

The Škampa Quartet continues to give unalloyed pleasure with their exceptional tuning and blend. As far as I can tell, their makeup is the same as that when they started playing together twenty-five years ago. Their account of the Janáček quartets has long been my benchmark and this new one of the Dvořák “American Quartet” and Quintet with the rich-toned violist, Krzysztof Chorzelski can join that disc as a reference recording of these pieces. Champ Hill Records have also done their part in contributing a deluxe booklet with exemplary notes and colour photos. Even if you have other favourite recordings of these works, you should add this one to your collection.

Leslie Wright



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