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Bohemia Express
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
Suite for Strings (1877)
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quintet in G, Op. 77 (1875)
Josef SUK (1874-1935)
Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St Wenceslas,” Op. 35a (1914)
St. George Quintet
rec. 2018, Concert Hall, Brussels Conservatory, Belgium
Private release [59:17]

In a fascinating video, the St. George Quintet document their travels around the Czech Republic, immersing themselves in the sights and, particularly, the sounds, of that wonderful country. Those sounds include a folk music festival, outdoor events that are remarkably popular in that territory.

The Janáček Suite for Strings is a bracing, exploratory early work that shows a variety of influences, from folk melody to Dvořák and even Wagner (there is a hint, perhaps of the Siegfried Idyll about the second movement Adagio, or perhaps it is the halos of Lohengrin one can detect?). What is impressive about this performance is the way the St. George Quintet treat the piece as integral within itself, handling it with the utmost care; it is Janáček’s own voice they honour. That second movement Adagio is infinitely tender, the contrast with the lilting Andante con moto, a sliver of a movement that follows, beautifully done. Contrasts within the fourth movement (its initial marking is Presto) find the St George Quintet relishing the moments of repose as much as they do the verve of that Presto. The greatest depths are plumbed in the second Adagio of the work, the fifth movement, the long-breathed melodies exquisitely delivered by the players here. The piece ends with a tender Andante, fondly performed here. The recording supports the warm sound of the instrumentalists while allowing for the utmost transparency; there is a welcome sense of space around the players, too.

Antonín Dvořák’s G major Quintet (string quartet and double-bass) was originally in five movements (the discarded movement, an Intermezzo that appears as catalogue number B 19, was later to become the Nocturne in B for string orchestra). The Vlach Quartet with Jakub Waldmann on Naxos include the extra movement in its original chamber form; in catalogue terms, the St. George Ensemble comes up against fierce opposition (Prazák, Škampa and Panocha Quartets to name but two region-specific ones) but manage to hold their own, not least because of their charm, heard in the contrasting sections of the Scherzo, where the outer sections have much dance-like vim to them. The slow movement, a Poco Andante, flows nicely here, in its latter stages punching well above its weight; of particular beauty is the way the St George ensemble phrases the descending, sighing phrases. If the Dvořák sparks interest, The Gauder Ensemble on Hyperion Helios offers a low-cost way forward, coupling this work with that composer’s wonderful A major Piano Quintet, Op. 81.

I really enjoyed the Škampa Quartet’s performance of Suk’s Meditation at LSO St Luke’s in February 2016 (review); this is a similarly moving account, Diede Verpoest’s viola very moving in its solo line at the opening; the St. George Ensemble takes us on a remarkable emotional journey within a shot space of time. The ensemble’s tuning is impeccable; if pushed, it would be the Suk that I would identify as the disc’s highlight.

Beautifully produced by the experienced Rachel Smith, this is a most rewarding disc.

Colin Clarke

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