Dvořák: String Sextet; String Quintet

Jerusalem Quartet; Veronika Hagen and Gary Hoffman (Harmonia Mundi)

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CD_HMM902320_Dvorak_CMYK

Dvořák String Sextet; String Quintet
Jerusalem Quartet; Veronika Hagen (viola), Gary Hoffman (cello)
Harmonia Mundi HMM 902320 65:31 mins

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Brahms greatly admired Dvořák’s A major String Sextet, and his friend Joachim organised the premiere in Berlin in 1879, a major public success for the Czech composer. Written just after Dvořák’s first set of Slavonic Dances, the Sextet shares their melodic spontaneity and rhythmic vitality. Listening to a performance as good as this, it is hard to understand why we don’t hear the Sextet more frequently today. Perhaps it is the expense of the extra viola and cello it requires. The Jerusalem Quartet, joined by Veronika Hagen (viola) and Gary Hoffman (cello), projects a strong sense of ensemble throughout while reveling both in the work’s abundant lyricism as well as its more hard-edged developmental passages: the heady excitement generated in the final variation movement is quite dazzling.

Their performance of Dvořák’s String Quintet, Op. 97 – composed in America in 1893 and sharing many of the ear-catching qualities of the more famous American Quartet – is not in the same league; it also has stiff competition in two recent superlative recordings by the Haas and Skampa Quartets. All of the playing is unquestionably beautiful, but there is something slightly routine in their approach to the variation slow movement, and the scherzo could have done with more earthy involvement. While the first movement is impressive with a compelling sense of direction, the finale is curiously four-square and lacking in excitement.

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Jan Smaczny