Notes and Editorial Reviews
String Quartets Nos. 10-14.
SUPRAPHON SU4048-2 (3 CDs: 202:46)
Supraphon is finding new and exciting ways to encourage you to sample the Panocha’s much-admired 1983–95 recordings of Dvo?ák’s string quartets. Should you have collected some individual volumes and run out of steam, you now have the chance to acquire this slimline three-CD set containing the last five quartets, and
in the bargain. But if you bought the box set of all the quartets and have seldom played the early ones—I shouldn’t think it likely, but it is, I suppose, possible —then it’s also the case that you might cast a jaundiced eye over this selection of the best-known works and wonder why you didn’t hold out.
Whatever you may or may not have done, one can hardly argue with a label that seeks to maximize profits this way, or, to put it another way, to reinvestigate means by which to propagate its recorded legacy and that of its artists. The Panocha is a highly distinguished group, certainly, but it has its rivals, current and past. It also rivals itself, given that it’s made other recordings of this repertoire for other labels. For example, almost a decade after recording Nos. 10 and 14, it rerecorded them for Camerata (28093). The “new” Panocha proved here to be a touch fleeter than the old. James H. North certainly admired both accounts in
32:1, as do I, though I like the Prague Quartet’s DG accounts equally, in their very different ways. There is more pathos in the Prague recordings, made between 1973 and 1977, but their heavier bowing and boomier acoustic accords them a somewhat inflated sound. This may or may not please, but it is certainly to be distinguished from the Panocha’s lighter collective qualities.
Another leading Czech group, the Stamitz, has also recorded the full set and most impressively. It’s now to be had complete on Brilliant 99949. They tend to relax just that bit more than their rivals, but evince a genuinely memorable approach. They are very convincing in the op. 106 quartet but in its rather cavernous, distant way, so too is the Prague. Many contemporary ensembles take this quartet in a quasi-symphonic way, piling it with almost neurotic intensity. Fortunately none of these three Czech groups do that. Indeed the Panocha plays with discretion and appropriate tonal weight, arguably a touch more vibrant than either the Stamitz or the Prague in the slow movement.
One can argue the swings and roundabouts of this all day. I find the Prague a touch more patrician in phrasing than either the Stamitz or Panocha, but oddly, rather more openly expressive in a number of the slow movements. Perhaps
offers a clue: The Panocha plays the fourth, a
, as a recollected-in-tranquility elegy. The Prague, meanwhile, prefers a more measured melancholy. The difference is between the heightened mobility of the Panocha and the stately reflection of the Prague, a pretty accurate reflection of the expressive differences generally. This also applies to the Panocha’s recent remake, again on Camerata (CMCD-28206), where it’s coupled with Quartet No. 13
Where does this leave us? This three-CD set offers the bulk of Dvo?ák’s greatest quartets, or “The Essential String Quartets” as the cover puts it, in idiomatic, beautifully nuanced readings. The complete set is on Supraphon 3815-2, but this selection of the last quartets contains recordings that are, even in a crowded field, among the best around.
FANFARE: Jonathan Woolf
Works on This Recording
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