Dvorak: String Quartets No. 9 in D minor, Op. 34; No. 14 in A flat, Op. 105

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COMPOSERS: Dvorak
LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: String Quartets No. 9 in D minor, Op. 34; No. 14 in A flat, Op. 105
PERFORMER: Wihan Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: NI 6115

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The Wihan Quartet deserves great credit for these two CDs, and not just for their playing. Getting less familiar repertoire into the recording studio is not the easiest of tasks and here they have slipped in two of Dvorák’s less well known quartets alongside two works which are pretty much standard repertoire, indeed, more than that in the case of the ever-green American Quartet.

The D minor Quartet, from the early years of Dvorák’s compositional maturity, is winningly lyrical and, with a polka by way of a scherzo, plays the national card with aplomb. Dedicated to Brahms, the Quartet was written with Dvoπák on his best compositional behaviour, and yet it never lacks spontaneity. The slow movement is the gem of the piece, richly textured and meltingly beautiful. 

The Wihans’ performance goes to the Quartet’s heart. The first movement takes a little while to settle, but, as a whole, this an enormously impressive reading that searches out real depths, especially in the slow movement, and in the Polka does not eschew the edgier side of the musical argument.

Their way with the more familiar A flat Quartet is equally persuasive: the scherzo, one of Dvorák’s best, has superb impetus and they make the best of the sensual lyricisn of its trio. In the slow movement, they go for lucidity rather than chasing hidden depths. Nevertheless, as a whole their performance compares favourably with such classic interpretations as those of the Vlach, Prazak and Emerson quartets.
 

In the wrong hands the C major Quartet can seem a little austere. The Wihan Quartet, however, produces a completely committed and utterly convincing reading. The motivic argument in the first movement is pursued with rigour, but not at the expense of its occasional poignancy and the conclusion is truly exultant. Both slow movement and scherzo have a compelling intensity and the finale magnificent impetus. In short, this is the finest recorded performance I have encountered to date.

While their performance of the American is in no way a disappointment, it doesn’t reach the interpretative heights of the C major Quartet, nor does it challenge the hegemony of the Prazak Quartet’s recording of this work. The slow movement is certainly wonderful, but the first movement is slightly inclined to sentimentality. However, in an excellent recorded sound that reveals so much of the loving detail of Dvorák’s quartet writing, this is a formidable pair of discs. Jan Smaczny