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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Sextet Op. 48 [33:39]
String Quintet Op. 97 [33:13]
Jerusalem Quartet (Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins); Ori Kam (viola); Kyril Zlotnikov (cello))
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Gary Hoffman (cello)
rec. 2017, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902320 [66:57]

My preferred recording for these two delightful chamber works has long been by the Raphael Ensemble on the Hyperion label, made way back in 1988, thirty years ago. That remains still the safest of choices, yet having now heard this new issue from the augmented Jerusalem Quartet I am happy to recommend it even above that classic recording, mainly because the sound is that bit clearer, richer and warmer, and their slightly more leisurely approach brings out even more gratefully the sumptuous indulgence of Dvořak’s orchestration for strings.

Separated by fifteen years, these two works represent some of the most joyful and exuberant music Dvorak ever wrote, the Sextet being more redolent of Bohemian folk music while the later Quintet, written while the composer and his family were holidaying in Iowa amongst Czech settlers, shows the influence of the Native American melodies and his nostalgia for his own native land. Rhapsodic and melancholy by turns, this music is extraordinarily well served by the Raphael Ensemble and the Jerusalem group, who both play with verve and irreproachable unanimity but there is even more depth in the lower string tones of the latter. I am also particularly impressed by their attention to the shading of dynamics and their feeling for rubato in the pulse of this music. Just listen to the first few bars of Op. 97 and you are instantly transported into Dvorak's special sound world: the viola intones a heart-breaking, bitter-sweet melody, then gradually the violins attempt to pierce the melancholy clouds only to be gently repulsed by the cello, then they regroup and the sun breaks through in octaves - magical. The music dances, marches and whirls through variations and sudden rhythmic twists in a manner unmistakable for any other composer.

My sole gripe concerns a habit among the leaders of some string ensembles that I find increasingly irksome, which is an all-too-audible sniff on the upbeat as phrases are leaned into. This is particularly noticeable in the Larghetto of Op. 97, but also elsewhere, and it can be distracting to the listener. That movement will also serve as an illustration of the differences in approaches to performance between the two groups: the Raphael are spikier and livelier, the Jerusalem more suave and relaxed – but those differences are marginal and both remain very satisfying, even if I find a slightly more measured way preferable.

Confusingly, the back cover lists the two works in reverse chronological order, whereas they are played as per the booklet notes, with Op. 48 first.

Ralph Moore

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