Dvorak: String Quartets No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (American); No. 13 in G, Op. 106

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COMPOSERS: Dvorak
LABELS: Supraphon
WORKS: String Quartets No. 12 in F, Op. 96 (American); No. 13 in G, Op. 106
PERFORMER: Pavel Haas Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SU 4038-2

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Hardly two and a half years separate the composition of these two quartets, and yet they seem to occupy very different creative worlds. Written at the start of a much-needed summer holiday in 1893, after Dvorák’s exhausting first year of teaching in New York, the American Quartet is open-hearted, winningly lyrical and fundamentally simple in outline; its spontaneity had much to do with the fact that it was sketched in the record time of three days.

The G major Quartet was the first composition completed after Dvorák’s return to Bohemia in 1895. While it yields little to the American in terms of lyricism, it is a more complex and far more richly-textured work. The first movement has a huge emotional range and in the wonderful Adagio slow movement which looks both backward to his American period and forward to the late operas such as Rusalka, Dvorák plumbed depths he never attempted in any other of his quartets.

The Haas Quartet delivers superb performances of both works. They go straight to the heart of Op. 106’s Adagio with an excellent feeling not just for its formal dynamics, but also for the intensity of its introspective moments. Throughout, their understanding of the musical argument is exemplary: the first movement is very volatile, but at every stage the performers respond with both passion and a clear feeling for musical line; there is a marvellous spontaneity to the way in which the cello drives the opening part of the first movement prompting a real sense of dialogue from the other members of the quartet.

In truth, there are so many details that delight the ear it would be almost impossible to list them all, but a prime example is the meltingly beautiful beginning of the recapitulation. Their performance of the scherzo (Molto vivace) blends Beethovenian determination in the outer parts with a magically delicate reading of the trio. If anything, they are even better in the finale, negotiating its uproarious good cheer and the dreamy reminiscences of earlier movements with consummate skill; in a movement that can seem discursive, they find both an emotional and rational thread to the argument. 

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The Pavel Haas Quartet’s reading of the American is also very attractive, with a premium on expressive detail and, in the slow movement, remarkable sweetness of tone in all registers, captured superbly by the warm recorded sound. There is nothing bland about the way in which they address the sheer joy in life that Dvorák clearly felt when writing this work, nor the emotional ups and downs he experienced in the New World. In a field occupied by many superb performances – those of the Prazak Quartet (on Praga) and the Lindsays (on ASV) spring to mind in both works – this issue certainly stands very high. Jan Smaczny