Dvorak: String Quartet in F, Op. 96 (American); Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81

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COMPOSERS: Dvorak
LABELS: Arabesque
WORKS: String Quartet in F, Op. 96 (American); Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81
PERFORMER: Peter Serkin (piano); Orion String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: Z 6731
Late works often tell us much about their composer’s personality. Arguably, Dvorák’s A flat major Quartet, the last of his 14 works in the form, reveals more about his state of mind than any other work from his last decade. There are certainly moments of open-hearted aspiration reminiscent of his ‘American’ works, but there are some disturbing glimpses of a much darker, neurotic side – just try the tortured harmonies at the heart of the slow movement or the bizarre, nervy opening of the finale. The Pražák Quartet undoubtedly has the measure of this most elusive of Dvorák’s quartets. The players are alive to every nuance, and, apart from a slight tendency to read diminuendi as pull ups, they turn in one of the most perceptive and richly satisfying performances I have heard of this work, even better than the Vlach Quartet’s excellent reading.

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Their performance of the American is another revelation, a highly intelligent revisiting of a familiar masterpiece with a magically withdrawn reading of the first movement’s second theme and a captivatingly intense performance of the whole. By comparison, the Orion Quartet takes a more conventional, faintly respectful view and is far too indulgent with the second theme of the first movement; nor does the rest of the Quartet catch fire. The famous A major Quintet, with its broader lyrical paragraphs, fares much better in their hands; if occasionally their treatment seems ultra-Romantic it is never less than sincere, and Peter Serkin’s piano playing is nothing short of magnificent. Jan Smaczny