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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Opus 18 No. 1, 1798-1800 [27:58]
String Quartet No. 2 in G Major, Opus 18 No. 2, 1798-1800 [25:05]
String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Opus 18 No. 3, 1798-1800 [27:32]
String Quartet No. 4 in C Minor, Opus 18 No. 4, 1798-1800 [26:15]
String Quartet No. 5 in A Major, Opus 18 No. 5, 1798-1800 [28:00]
String Quartet No. 6 in B Flat Major, Opus 18 No. 6, 1798-1800 [26:28]
String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Opus 59 No. 1 'Razumovsky’, 1805-1806 [41:27]
String Quartet No. 14 in C Sharp Minor, Opus 131 (1826) [40:14]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
String Quartet in D minor K421 [417b] (1783) [22:26]
Vlach Quartet
rec. 1956-1970, Domovina Studio, Prague
Stereo except Mozart (mono)
SUPRAPHON SU4221-2 [4 CDs: 266:10]

If that old adage is true that a string quartet is only as good as its second violinist, then the Vlach was an outstanding quartet. Václav Snítil held the position, joining his eminent colleagues in a long sequence of recitals and recordings that began with their first concert in April 1950. The group disbanded just over a quarter of a century later in 1976. Through distribution on Supraphon, DG and EMI the Vlach established a formidable reputation in the 1960s, one that was cemented by touring. Snítil’s Czech-language autobiography offers a treasure store of memories of his quartet and solo career and also some superb photographs of the Vlach Quartet during far-flung travels. They were famous for the Dvořák recordings – their live broadcasts even more outstanding, if anything, than the commercial legacy - but their Debussy-Ravel coupling was also famed. And here is a box of (almost entirely) Beethoven to show their prowess in the set of Op.18, a single Razumovsky and Op.131.

They learned the Beethoven quartets steadily, so this wasn’t like the Pro Arte busking their way through some of the Haydn quartets for their 78 recordings in the 1930s. This, by contrast, was mature, richly expressive music-making recorded between 1960 and 1970. The interloper is the Mozart, recorded much earlier in 1956. At the time, the catalogue in this repertoire sported recordings by Eastern European groups such as the exalted Hungarian and the Tátrai quartets. Of Czech ensembles, the Smetana left some superb couplings of early and mid or late Beethoven quartets and the Janáček in Brno left a wonderful Op.18/6 as well as a fine Op.135. The Czechoslovak Quartet, a lesser ensemble, also recorded Beethoven at the same time that the Vlach did and for the same national label.

The Vlach’s virtues in the Op.18 quartets are ones of mellifluous warmth in the best traditions of Czech string playing. Vibrato is finely calibrated between the two violinists, the primarius and guiding spirit of the group, Josef Vlach, part of a dynasty of great players – his daughter is a leading quartet leader in her own right – ensuring that he and Snítil are in accord. The group didn’t record the six quartets in a particular order, so Op.18/1 was one of the last to be recorded, along with Op.18/6. But each quartet receives considered and refined interpretation. The finale of Op.18/3 is buoyant and tangy, the slow movement of Op.18/1 is ardently expressive with plenty of colour, the interplay between the two fiddles in the finale of 18/2 is full of playful wit and the Vlach catch that element of village vibrancy in the Menuetto of Op.18/5. Their application of senza vibrato is effective but in the main it’s the range and constant, often quite romanticised application of colour that is their most audible quality. Their elegance is accompanied sometimes by a slightly big-boned approach – parts of Op.18/6, perhaps - but the playing is always elevated and eloquent. They make a truly beautiful ensemble sound with famed violist Josef Koďousek and cellist Viktor Moučka audible in the balance at all times.

The slow movement of Op.59/1 is well calibrated and is not over-effusive. For all their warmth, the Vlach remains a stylistically apt quartet and their expressive devices are tastefully, modestly and never lavishly applied. This warm but healthy approach applies to Op.131 as well. Intonation is excellent but the Vlach is never gruff or even – when the opportunity presents itself – spiritual, for want of a better word. Their musicianship is probing but not heavenly. They are not at all guarded in Beethoven but equally don’t emote. Their earlier Mozart K421 recording reflects their prize-winning performance at the 1955 Ličge Quartet contest. This is the only mono recording in the set of four CDs and it’s just a little glassy but fully captures an affectionate, romantic reading.

The booklet has a pleasing note that briefly but pertinently traces the trajectory of the quartet from formation to dissolution. The transfers are very successful, fortunately.

Jonathan Woolf



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