Notes and Editorial Reviews
Scherzo in F. Presto in C. Chamber Symphony No. 1
String Quartet No. 3
Jaromír Klepá? (pn)
PRAGA PRD/DSD 250 278 (SACD: 64:28)
Founded in 1974, the Pražák has long been one of the world’s finest ensembles (and perpetrator of the most satisfying string-quartet
concert I ever attended), yet it seemed to lose something six or seven years ago, judging from an overly aggressive performance of Dvo?ák’s “American” Quartet and some weak middle-period Beethoven on Praga. Schoenberg’s Third Quartet follows Pražák recordings of the First and Second by 16 and 13 years, respectively, and there has been a recent gap in appearances of the ensemble’s recordings in general. Bernard Jacobson, in
28:1, found the Pražák’s Beethoven op. 18, Nos. 4 and 5 “wonderfully bold, perceptive, and indeed imaginative performances, which in many respects constitute interpretations of the music as powerfully convincing as any I have encountered, either live or on disc.” But he also noted, “Surprisingly for a violinist elsewhere so alive to musical nuance, Václav Reme? fudges the rapid staccato triplets in the second variation of the A-Major Quartet’s slow movement.” The quartet’s website notes that “In 2010 Pavel H?la succeeded founding first violinist Václav Reme?, who was unable to continue performing due to a medical condition in his left hand.” This may explain the gap in recordings, as well as performance deficiencies that bothered me in op. 59. It is difficult to abandon a valued member of a string quartet when problems occur that may be only temporary (remember the Budapest’s Josef Roisman). In any case, H?la—former first violin of the Kocian Quartet—leads these September 2010 sessions, and the Pražák is back in top form.
The two early quartet movements are potent, thrilling pieces that might have been lifted from the best works of Brahms or Dvo?ák. At age 22 and 23, there was no question that a great talent was at work. The Pražák’s aggressive style serves theses two pieces ideally. The players tear into both with ferocious energy, and they come alive as never before, far more convincingly than in recordings by the Arditti Quartet, despite the latter’s quicker tempos.
Has any work been transcribed more often than Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony? From its original 15 instruments it’s gone down to three, and (twice) up to a full symphony orchestra. This 1923 piano quintet arrangement is its most successful transcription, not for the inherent nature of the medium but because of Webern’s unmatched ear and ability to express what he heard. The brilliant musicians of the Arditti and the eminent ones in the Schoenberg Quartet have demonstrated the efficacy of Webern’s work, but this blazing performance makes the former seem soft, the latter dull. The Pražák maintains strong tension while clarifying each detail, yet it comes together as a single grand statement. It also benefits from startlingly potent, close up recorded sound, which captures every nuance.
The Third Quartet is prime evidence of the value of 12-tone serialism. René Leibowitz called it “breathless and brilliant,” but the most apt description comes in Hugh Wood’s program notes to the Chandos recording by the Schoenberg Quartet: “austere, tough, magisterial, and unmistakably masterly.” Despite the lack of any tonal center and the non-repeating nature of the serial method, its four movements recall classical form; each movement has a forward progression, and a sense of drama, that connect the listener to familiar concepts such as development, variations, and even sonata form. That (Chandos) recording has always struck me as dead-on, just what the music needs; it is thoughtful, tough, and totally satisfying. The Pražák performance is livelier, softening the austerity by employing a wider palette of color. If I had gotten to know the Pražák first, I might prefer it. Another fine alternative is the Arditti: sleek and slick but undeniably brilliant; serial quicksilver, if you will. It is almost a different piece this way—forget austere, forget tough—demonstrating that this serial work responds to a variety of interpretations, as do all masterpieces.
The Pražák has a rich, gutsy sound that digs into music, ignoring—almost defying—the silky felicities of many current ensembles (and of the Arditti). Praga reproduces that character, up close and honestly. I hear very little difference between the CD and the SACD, however, and surround sound neither adds nor detracts. This disc is a triumph for the composer and for the revitalized Pražák Quartet.
FANFARE: James H. North
Works on This Recording
Chamber Symphony no 1 in E major, Op. 9 by Arnold Schoenberg
Jaromír Klepác (Piano)
Prazák String Quartet
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1906; Vienna, Austria
Notes: Transcribed for piano quintet by Anton Webern.
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