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Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 23 (1875) [34:03]
Piano Quartet No. 2 in E flat major, Op. 87 (1889) [37:00]
Busch Trio
Miguel da Silva (viola)
rec. 2016/17, Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel, Waterloo, Belgium
ALPHA 288 [71:05]

The Piano Quartet in E flat, Op. 87 is a rather under-appreciated gem among Dvořák’s chamber works, perhaps because it is so much darker than the sunny and popular Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81. The four serious-looking guys on the cover of this disc hint that their performance may not feature happy-faced smiles and soppy sentiment. What they offer is a rather cool approach characterized by precise, well-planned playing.
The opening Allegro con fuoco has plenty of dynamic contrast in a cleanly romantic approach. The playing shows the work’s drama, without any hint of goo. The tempo is a touch deliberate, but it permits the work’s strength to show, especially at the end of the movement. The cello sings ardently early in the Lento, whose climaxes are explosive. The Busch Trio handles the Allegro moderato grazioso with elegance, resisting any temptation for schmaltz in the trio. The finale chugs along in the beginning, gaining excitement as Dvořák’s cascade of melodic invention unfolds.

The Piano Quartet No. 1 in D, Op. 23 also benefits from the Busch Trio’s somewhat steely, apollonian approach, although the work itself is not so fine. Like much early Dvořák, this piece is a bit long-winded. But even in a garrulous mood, Dvořák offers many pleasures. The Busch players delight in the filigree that Dvořák wrote into his rather courtly Allegro moderato. The variations dance along in the Andantino, and the Finale swings. Perhaps the Busch compensates for the musically weaker content of the first piano quartet by ratcheting up the charm where it is most needed.

The Busch Trio took its name from Adolph Busch, whose Guadagnini instrument is played by Dutch violinist Mathieu van Bellen. Pianist Omri Epstein and cellist Ori Epstein are Israeli brothers, and the three formed their ensemble in London in 2012. Here they are joined by Belgian violist Miguel da Silva, in a second installment of a series of discs devoted to Dvořák chamber music.

There are many fine versions of these two piano quartets. These stand with the best. The wonderful Domus performances sound somewhat dated, simply because of the superior recording quality of new versions such as this. For maximum adrenalin, try the 2012 Lugano Festival version, with Polina Leschenko (piano), Torleif Thedéen (cello), Nathan Braude (viola), and Ilya Gringolts (violin). It sounds rushed at times, and offers less detail, but provides more thrills than Dvořák’s actual tempo markings require. In contrast, the Busch Trio’s more careful approach draws the listener more deeply into the music, still with plenty of excitement.

The Alpha recording is open and expansive, with clear instrumental separation, a good balance between strings and piano, and plenty of detail. Claire Seymour enjoyed the Busch Trio’s earlier disc of Dvořák’s Piano Trios 3 and 4, but complained that the recording favored the cello over the violin. I have not heard that disc, but here Mathieu van Bellen’s violin sings through quite well.

Richard Kraus


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