Dvorak: Piano Quintet, Etc / Leipzig Quartet, Et Al

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Contained on this CD are two of Dvo?ák’s finest and most beautiful chamber works. By what measure, you may ask, is one able to say that one piece of music is more beautiful than another, or even that it is beautiful at all? Is beauty not, after all, in the eye—or in this case, the ear—of the beholder? It is an interesting question, and one that has been posed and examined by many philosophers and aestheticians (e.g., Eduard Hanslick, The Beautiful in Music). My test, hardly scientific, has to do with memorability. Play the opening of Dvo?ák’s A-Major Piano Quintet. Do you find yourself wondering how a melody so simple, yet so heartfelt, could ever occur to anyone? Do you continue to hear that melody in your head long after the piece is over? If there were a rating for arresting beginnings, this one would have to be at or very near the top. Yet this is not a work that says everything it has to say in its first few measures; for its 40-minutes-plus duration, it never flags once. It’s almost too full of ideas and invention to be absorbed all in one hearing. Just listen to the Finale, a movement that begins with another tune, again simple and equally memorable. The developmental possibilities Dvo?ák finds in it, including a fugue midway through the movement, turn into a nonstop dance-a-thon.

The Piano Quintet was written in 1887, prior to Dvo?ák’s event-filled visit to the US (1892–1895). The E?-Major String Quintet dates from 1893, in the midst of that visit, and was written in Spillville, Iowa, where the composer summered with family and friends. As in most of the works Dvo?ák wrote during his “American” period, we are told that there are African-American and Native-American elements in the music: modal scales minus leading-tones, pentatonic scales, strongly syncopated rhythms, and narrowly circumscribed melodic arcs that center around a repeated chant-like tone. Be that as it may (and I won’t dispute it), I have yet to hear anything by Dvo?ák—and that includes the “New World” Symphony and the so-called “American” Quartet—that doesn’t sound like Dvo?ák, which is to say, Czech. Perhaps the Slavic folk elements that are so pronounced in Dvo?ák’s music somehow made the voyage to the New World and ended up among Iowa’s Fox Indian tribes. But I’ve always found it a stretch to imagine that anything like the scherzo movement (Allegro vivo) or the typically Dvo?ákian “dumka” movement (Larghetto) of this quintet would strike a familiar chord at one of the great council meetings of the Plains tribes described in James Michener’s Centennial. Too much, I believe, has been made of Dvo?ák’s Native-American ethno-musicology. He may have borrowed certain Native-American elements, but he didn’t dress them up in buffalo hides and feathered headgear. It was Rudolf Friml, if I’m not mistaken, who wrote the Indian Love Call.

In past reviews, I have waxed ecstatic over performances by the Leipziger String Quartet (Andreas Seidel and Tilmann Büning, violins; Ivo Bauer, viola; and Matthias Moosdorf, cello), as well as over performances by pianist Christian Zacharias. In the case of this current release, I must temper my enthusiasm slightly, but not because the playing or the recording are in any way undeserving of a strong endorsement. To the contrary, they are excellent. It’s just that the competition, especially in the Piano Quintet, is formidable. In my own collection alone, I find six versions of the Piano Quintet, and current catalogs list at least two dozen more. Second only to the “American” Quartet, the A-Major Piano Quintet is in a dead heat with the “Dumky” Piano Trio for number of recordings.

One of the classics is with Artur Rubinstein and the Guarneri Quartet on RCA, paired with the composer’s “American” String Quartet. The performances are white-hot, but the 1970s sound is a bit congested. Also on RCA, in a much improved 1990 recording, is my current personal favorite with the late Rudolf Firkušný and a wonderful group, the Ridge String Quartet, that ought to be better known. An additional bonus is that the discmate is Dvo?ák’s earlier (1872) and seldom heard A-Major Piano Quintet, op. 5. I’m not sure, though, that this recording is still available. Another one that is, however, and that also includes the earlier quintet, is a Dorian CD with pianist Antonin Kubalek and the Lafayette String Quartet in gorgeous sound and performances.

For the op. 97 String Quintet, there are about half the number of choices, but among them are some very good ones. A fairly recent release on the Cedille label with the Pacifica String Quartet is especially worth seeking out, as is a Hyperion release with the Raphael Ensemble.

The current release with Zacharias and the Leipzigers is very good, and I am pleased to recommend it. I’m just not able to say that it edges out the others I’ve mentioned.
Jerry Dubins, FANFARE

Product Description:

  • Release Date: April 01, 2004

  • Catalog Number: 3071249-2

  • UPC: 760623124926

  • Label: MDG

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Antonín Dvořák

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Leipzig String Quartet

  • Performer: Christian Zacharias, Hartmut Rohde