Dvorak/Janacek: String Quartet Op. 96 (American); Piano Quintet in A; String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata)

COMPOSERS: Dvorak/Janacek
LABELS: Testament
WORKS: String Quartet Op. 96 (American); Piano Quintet in A; String Quartet No. 1 (Kreutzer Sonata)
PERFORMER: Pavel Stepán (piano); Smetana Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SBT 1074 ADD stereo
Although coupling late Franck with early Bartók might not seem logical, somehow the two seem to complement each other. Furthermore, the Belgian Pro Arte Quartet had a fondness for juxtaposing the new, the old and the unexpected. Bartók knew their skills well; his Fourth Quartet is dedicated to them, while their premiere recording of his Romantically discursive First remains powerfully persuasive. It was made in 1934, the year that also saw the completion of Bartók’s magnificent Fifth Quartet, a work that the Kolisch Quartet recorded some seven years later. However, that particular set has remained unissued until now. Why? Possibly because it’s not terribly good. In fact, one gains the distinct impression that the players didn’t really connect with the spirit of the score – excepting, that is, for a rather poignant reading of the Adagio molto. True, Bartók was still a ‘new’ voice at the time; and yet the Budapest Quartet had already exhibited a far stronger grasp of the seminal Second Quartet, a fine, albeit rather dry, performance and in marked contrast to the Krettly’s fruity rendition of Stravinsky’s primitivist Three Pieces.

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All three ensembles parade stylistic characteristics of the day, whereas the postwar Hollywood Quartet recalls – with its incisive attack and vibrant tonal profile – such distinguished émigré virtuosi as Heifetz and Feuermann. Although wonderfully assured in Smetana’s First Quartet and Kodály’s Second, it seems to me fundamentally miscast in the rustic, song-and-dance world of Dvorák’s American Quartet. Here I’d unhesitatingly opt for a fresher, more relaxed and infinitely more idiomatic reading by the Czech Smetana Quartet, where the first movement’s second subject really smiles and Pavel SŠtepán brings a wealth of pianistic poetry to the Piano Quintet. A companion CD features an equally fetching account of the expansive A flat Quartet (an essential ‘late’ masterpiece), while each disc ends with one of Janácek’s two quartets.

So far, so good; but then Supraphon has come up with its Smetana Quartet retrospective (six discs) which includes, among other goodies, later recordings of the two Janáceks and the Dvorák American. Furthermore, extensive comparisons reveal an even freer, more spontaneous manner on Supraphon. For example, the Janácek Second was recorded live and is some two minutes faster than its rather more temperate studio predecessor. As to the remaining discs, there are memorable performances of Smetana’s two quartets, some nicely turned Mozart, a rarely heard quartet by Jirí Jaroch (composed with the Smetanas in mind), a ‘selection’ from Josef Suk’s First Quartet (we’re told that lack of space precluded inclusion of the whole work) and a superb performance of Vítezslav Novák’s Second Quartet, a 1973 recording that Supraphon – for reasons known only to themselves – have released in mono.

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Then there are two CDs’ worth of the Smetana’s Beethoven – well-prepared, well-integrated performances that feature some remarkably refined ensemble work. Quality music-making indeed, and yet I found myself hankering after something more exploratory, a more individualistic response to a series of scores that even today seem more in tune with the future than with the past. Here the Capet Quartet excels in readings that, although dimly recorded and scuffed by surface noise, exhibit a supple, attentive and consistently imaginative approach to Opp. 131 and 132. All the more reason to regret that the Quartet’s projected complete recorded cycle was cut short by Lucien Capet’s death in 1928.