WGBH Radio WGBH Radio theclassicalstation.org

Dvorák, Janácek: String Quartets / Smetana Quartet

Release Date: 04/18/2006 
Label:  Bbc Legends   Catalog #: 4180   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Antonín DvorákLeos Janácek
Performer:  Jiri NovákMilan SkampaLubomir KosteckyAntonin Kohout
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Smetana String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 10 Mins. 

In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

DVO?ÁK Terzetto in C, op. 74. String Quartet No. 14 in A?, op. 105. 1 JANÁ?EK String Quartet No. 1, ?Kreutzer Sonata? 1 ? Smetana Qrt ? BBC LEGENDS 4180 (70:19) Live: London 2/2/1975 1

A recent, Read more disturbing trend has been noted before: record companies refurbishing archival material and slapping a label on it that reads ?legendary,? without regard to whether or not the stamp is warranted. Dead or disbanded does not automatically confer ?legendary? status, and to claim indiscriminately that it does ultimately renders the word meaningless. That said, I?m not sure the Smetana Quartet is a ?legend,? but I will say that these performances recorded in studio in 1979 (the Dvo?ák Terzetto ) and live in 1975 (the Dvo?ák and Janá?ek quartets) are first-rate.

Formed in Prague in 1945, the original ensemble?which included Václav Neumann on viola?dedicated itself to promoting Czech music. An active calendar of concert engagements that took them around the world also took its toll on the composition of the group, which over time underwent a number of personnel changes. When these recordings were made, members were JiÈí Novák, Lubomir Kosteck´y, Milan S?kampa, and Antonini Kohout. Finally disbanding in 1989 after 44 years of countless appearances and scores of recordings (many nla or in hard-to-locate foreign pressings), the Smetana Quartet hung up their bows.

It?s hard to argue with players that have this music in the very fiber of their beings. Dvo?ák?s A?-Major Quartet, in particular, emerges here in a live performance that manages to balance seemingly polar opposites: spontaneous yet controlled, passionate yet reserved, energetic yet mellow. Most groups who can play Dvo?ák like this are Czech; I?m thinking of the wonderful recordings by the Prague and Prazák Quartets. To them, the Smetana can easily be added.

In researching how Dvo?ák?s Terzetto for two violins and viola came to be (the enclosed booklet note, authored by Tully Potter, gives us a biopic of the Smetana Quartet, but not a word about the works on the disc), I happened upon a most entertaining entry printed in the 1997?98 program notes of the Sierra Chamber Society. It is worth quoting in full:

Imagine this. You are now an up-and-coming composer.

One of the greatest living composers has taken an interest in your work, and has recommended you highly to his publisher. It looks as if your days of poverty, teaching, playing viola in theater orchestras and enduring those tedious viola jokes, are to become just a memory. You have a very important concert coming up in just over a week, in which you will premiere a new string quartet composed for this occasion. Rehearsals have been going quite well. This promises to be a major musical event! And then the cellist, a fine enough player, but with enough bad habits for the entire quartet, goes on a serious bender, and is found by the local constabulary face down on his cello. The instrument, unable to bear his considerable bulk, is now kindling. Upon being roused, the besotted cellist lets fly with a litany of scurrilous and scatological epithets aimed at the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. How long he will remain shackled in prison is anyone?s guess. Your string quartet is now reduced to two peeved violinists and you: a despondent bratsche kratscher (another viola joke!).

This story, of course, is not true. Like most of the Hausmusik Dvo?ák wrote, the Terzetto , composed in 1887, was intended for personal acquaintances or family members, usually of modest technical capabilites?in this case an amateur violinist (Kruis) and his teacher; Dvo?ák himself would have taken the viola part. The Terzetto , as it turned out, was more challenging than Dvo?ák thought, at least for Kruis. As consolation, the composer wrote for Kruis the less demanding Bagatelles, op.75a for two violins and viola, which later became the Four Romantic Pieces for violin and piano, op.75.

The Terzetto is not really for amateurs; it?s a substantial, 20-minute, multimovement string trio for the unusual combination of two violins and viola, and it is not technically easy. Its Scherzo in particular?a signature Dvo?ák furiant dance movement?is a minefield of tricky accents and cross rhythms. The Smetana players?minus their cellist, who I?m sure has not been jailed for drunken and disorderly conduct?give the piece the serious performance it deserves.

If I have any complaint about the Smetana?s reading of Janá?ek?s ?Kreutzer Sonata? Quartet, it?s that ironing out its wrinkles and playing it so warmly and lovingly soothes the piece?s raw and jangled nerve endings. Though for its time (1923), Janá?ek?s quartet is not all that extreme musically , psychologically it?s a very disturbing work, one that still has the power to shock in its depiction of Tolstoy?s short novel on the destructive forces unleashed by base human emotions. In the Smetana?s hands, Janá?ek becomes a smiling Czech Romantic; we hear clearly the connections to Dvo?ák and Smetana (the composer). My personal preference is to have Janá?ek?s ?Kreutzer? cooked rare, having previously cited the Hagen Quartet?s recording as a first choice.

This will matter not, however, to readers who appreciate gorgeous string-quartet-playing, regardless of its vintage, and this is gorgeous playing. The Smetana Quartet sounds fresher and more up-to-date here than another contemporaneous ensemble I?ve had occasion to review recently, the Borodin Quartet (also formed in 1945). The recording is warm and focused. A very strong recommendation.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Read less

Works on This Recording

Terzetto for 2 Violins and Viola in C major, Op. 74/B 148 by Antonín Dvorák
Performer:  Jiri Novák (Violin), Milan Skampa (Viola), Lubomir Kostecky (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Smetana String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1887; Bohemia 
Date of Recording: 01/24/1969 
Venue:  Live  BBC Studios, England 
Length: 20 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Notes: This selection is a stereo recording. 
Quartet for Strings no 14 in A flat major, Op. 105/B 193 by Antonín Dvorák
Performer:  Antonin Kohout (Cello), Jiri Novák (Violin), Lubomir Kostecky (Violin),
Milan Skampa (Viola)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Smetana String Quartet
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1895; Bohemia 
Date of Recording: 02/02/1975 
Venue:  Live  Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, England 
Length: 32 Minutes 13 Secs. 
Notes: This selection is a stereo recording. 
Quartet for Strings no 1 "Kreutzer Sonata" by Leos Janácek
Performer:  Antonin Kohout (Cello), Milan Skampa (Viola), Lubomir Kostecky (Violin),
Jiri Novák (Violin)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Smetana String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1923; Brno, Czech Republic 
Date of Recording: 02/02/1975 
Venue:  Live  Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, England 
Length: 16 Minutes 32 Secs. 
Notes: This selection is a stereo recording. 

Customer Reviews

Be the first to review this title
Review This Title