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Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No. 12 “American” in F major, op. 96 (1893) [25:27]
Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81 (1887) [40:55]
Joyce Yang (piano)
Alexander String Quartet
rec. 2017/18, St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, USA

Even piano trio aficionados such as myself would have to admit that Dvořák’s finest essays in chamber music were these two miracles of his maturity. I have said before that it is so unfortunate that he chose not to compose a piano trio later in his life, especially during his stay in the USA.

I first encountered the pairing of the Alexander Quartet with Joyce Yang in a release from 2014 of the Schumann and Brahms quintets which absolutely bowled me over and became one of my Records of the Year (review). Since then, I have seen her perform twice with the New Zealand SO, playing the Rach 3 and the Brahms 1. Each has been a wonderful experience. Since that release, she has joined the Alexanders, or at least three of them, in the Mozart quartets to acclaim (review).

First on the disc is one of the most loved string quartets ever written. You will have your favourite recordings (or three); mine is that by the Sacconi Quartet, released in 2011 (review). They imbued such emotional intensity and wistfulness into their reading that many other perfectly fine readings seemed a little bland in comparison. That applies here as well. The Alexanders play perfectly well, but their reading seems to lack something – I was not particularly engaged. The Sacconis take almost a full minute more on the opening movement but it is the Alexanders who seem to be lacking some energy. The other comparison to make is with the Pavel Haas Quartet (review), whose approach is less wistful, more anxious than the Sacconis, but again they give this glorious music a characterfulness that I don’t find with the Alexanders straightforward, smiling account.

I may not have been convinced by the Quartet, but I’m pleased to report that the partnership with Joyce Yang, so persuasive in Brahms and Schumann, is equally so in the Quintet. From the first, the effect is electric; the hairs on the back of my neck standing up almost throughout. How can Joyce Yang be so little celebrated? Brian Reinhart, in his review of the Brahms/Schumann wondered whether they had recorded the Dvořák – now they have. I trust that Brian, who no longer writes for MWI, sees this review and grabs the recording. Yang’s insightfulness and imagination are evident in every bar; there are magical delights to be found throughout. Dare I suggest that this tops even the classic Decca recording of Clifford Curzon and the Vienna Philharmonic Quartet? I don’t want to suggest that Yang has provided the Alexanders with the energy that was missing in the “American” Quartet, but the difference in the vitality between these two performances – the Quartet was done a year later – is startling.

The recording has been given the title “Locale”, but this isn’t elaborated upon in the notes, which are otherwise perfectly adequate for such well-known and documented music. The sound quality is very good, though not up to that given to the Sacconis which I remarked at the time was the best I ever heard in chamber music recordings.

So if you are a downloader, and some streaming samples align your thoughts with mine, the obvious course of action would be to just buy the Quintet, but that will cost you almost as much as the whole album anyway. For those still buying the physical item, if you love (or even just like) the Quintet, you really should buy this, and if you like the Quartet more than me, that will be a bonus.

David Barker

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