WORKS: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; Sextet in A
PERFORMER: Smetana Quartet, etc
CATALOGUE NO: SU 7004-2
Since the 1890s, the professional string quartet has had an almost iconic significance for the Czechs. Along with such cultural big hitters as the National Theatre and the Czech Philharmonic, a number of quartets have been among the leading cultural ambassadors for their nation, none more so than the Smetana Quartet. Formed in 1945 – the conductor Václav Neumann was a founding member – the Smetana Quartet was a vital thread in Czech musical culture for over 40 years, with a legacy of great recordings and a heritage that is perpetuated in groups of a later generation such as the Skampa Quartet – the latter named after the Smetana’s viola-player.
This well-filled DVD includes a documentary about the quartet as well as performances of the two Smetana quartets and Dvorák’s lovely A major Sextet. Perhaps the producers of the disc could have looked outside the Czech repertoire since, among much else, these players were formidable interpreters of Beethoven. While the documentary includes much valuable archive footage, it might have made more of the powerful tradition from which the quartet sprang and asked questions about the difficulties faced by performers under communism. A slightly hagiographic tendency is defused by the sheer enthusiasm of the quartet players; this was a group which not only had a passionate engagement with the music it played, but a genuine scholarly engagement with the text, particularly in the editorial minefield offered by the two Janácek quartets. The Smetana and Dvorák presented here are a delight: though recorded at the end of the ensemble’s career, there is little hint of the autumnal.