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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81, B.155 (1887) [41.54]
String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97, B.180 ‘American’ (1893) [32.39]
Pavel Haas Quartet
Boris Giltburg (piano)
Pavel Nikl (viola)
rec. 2017, Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague
SUPRAPHON SU4195-2 [74.44]

It was during a recital performance in 2007 that I first came across the Pavel Haas Quartet (PHQ), around the time of winning a Gramophone award in the chamber category for its debut album a recording of the Janáček and Haas String Quartets on Supraphon. I have also seen the quartet play in recital performance at Dresden and Berlin but not for a few years, so I’m delighted to have the opportunity of hearing its new album consisting Dvořák’s Quintets, Op. 81 and 97 two greatly admired chamber works which the players will know so intimately.

Buoyed by the great success of his fifth visit to England in 1886, Dvořák the next year completed his substantial and joyous Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, Op 81. It was composed in the Slavic folk idiom which pervades so many of Dvořák’s best scores and written before his extended stay in the United States of America. Some years earlier in 1872 Dvořák had composed a three movement Piano Quintet in A major, B.28, Op. 5. Evidently, dissatisfied with the score he destroyed it but some fifteen years later he obtained a copy and began making revisions. Although it has been recorded several times it is rarely heard today.

For this recording of the Piano Quintet the PHQ is joined by pianist Boris Giltburg. Opening with a good-natured Allegro this a movement greatly infused with the bucolic character of Bohemian folk music. Here the PHQ are highly convincing where the tempi cannot settle and fluctuates with contrasting character. The second movement titled Dumka is evidently based on appealing melodies which originated in the Ukraine. I love the playing of the mournful viola melody and the way the group convincingly communicate an undercurrent of melancholy. Once again steeped in Bohemian folk music in the Scherzo, a Furiant, the PHQ gallop along with vivacity and boyancy. In the Finale, a syncopated Allegro in the form of a Rondo, PHQ provide outstanding playing, an uplifting musical journey conveying a character of nostalgia with an underlying seriousness. My first choice recording of the Piano Quintet, Op. 81 is the evergreen 1962 Vienna account from pianist Clifford Curzon and the Vienna Philharmonic String Quartet led by Willi Boskovsky. Spirited and highly persuasive this is classic chamber music playing of the highest quality and digitally remastered on Decca. This is available with Curzon’s playing in Schubert’s Trout Quintet, D.667 which makes splendid coupling.

One of Dvořák’s best known chamber works is the String Quintet in E-flat majorAmerican’. The score requiring an extra viola was written in 1893 during his stay in the United States working at the New York Conservatory. Dvořák holidayed at the Bohemian colony at Spillville, Iowa and there his writing was inspired by African-American spirituals and authentic ritual music of the Native Americans. Companion works to the String QuintetAmerican’ which were also composed during his stay in the USA include String Quartet No. 12American’ and Symphony No. 9New World Symphony’.

Here violist Pavel Nikl seamlessly joins the PHQ in a sterling performance of this eminently melodious score. In the opening Allegro there is a distinct squally character together with episodes of real drama. The upbeat second movement, a Scherzo and Trio is given a vivacious and buoyant quality. Playing of notable unison and sense of humanity imbues the Larghetto such intimate music of a pastoral impression. A sense of jubilant confirmation generated by the players in the Finale is contrasted with passages of melancholic reflection. In the String QuintetAmerican’ my primary recommendation is the determined and entirely engaging 2008/09 New York City account from the Emerson Quartet and violist Paul Neubauer on Deutsche Grammophon.

Throughout the album with such inspiring musicianship PHQ successfully deal with the challenges of varying emotional depth and meter of the scores. Sadly, to my ears the sound quality doesn’t quite match the quality of the performances and for that reason can’t match the best of the competition. Recorded in 2017 at Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague the engineering team have provided sound that can seem over bright in louder passages. In addition, the balance tends to favour the violins and piano with slightly recessed lower strings, especially the cello, that can barely be heard.

The Pavel Haas Quartet continues its tradition of adding excellently performed albums to its discography.

Michael Cookson



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