Under the surface – Dvořák middle period String Quartets


Composer: Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)

Nationality: Czech

What did he write? Dvořák is very well known as a writer of nine symphonies – of which no.9, From The New World, is extremely popular – and the Eighth is often performed too. He wrote in most disciplines, with a lot more orchestral music, string quartets, piano trios, songs and some seldom-explored music for the stage.

Why aren’t these works more popular? Concert programmers are lazy when it comes to Dvořák String Quartets, and often choose just the one work, which is admittedly a cracker – the American quartet of 1893, with its bountiful use of Negro and American spiritual melodies. Yet there are at least 15 other quartets in Dvořák’s armoury. Some of the latter ones do quite well in concert but this pair of works is often overlooked.

What are the works on this new recording? Two mid-period quartets – in E flat major (published as Op.51 and composed in 1879) – and in C major, published as Op.61 and finished in 1881. They are released on the Praga label, played by fellow-countrymen the Zemlinsky Quartet.

What is the music like? Very attractive. There always seems to be a tune about!

The E flat major quartet is especially likeable for its sheer positivity and abundance of good moments. Probably the two best tunes are given to the outer movements, those being the good humoured tune of the first and the outright happiness (with a bit of cheek!) in the fourth movement.

The C major quartet is a bit more serious in tone but is once again full of good tunes and extremely listenable musical dialogue. The first movement sounds a little like mid-period Beethoven with spicier harmonies and has a really nice main theme, while the slow movement is warm and comforting. Before everything comes together in the energetic fourth movement the third is probably the pick, one of Dvořák’s Czech based dance forms.

What’s the verdict? There is some lovely, spring-like music here, and both works receive very committed performances from the Zemlinsky Quartet. The authenticity of Czech players playing Dvořák – which we have here – should never be overlooked, because of their instinctive way with the rhythms and national dances, so this gives them the edge.

Give this a try if you like… any of Dvořák’s better known works listed above, or the composers Brahms and Schumann.

Spotify Playlist

The Zemlinsky Quartet recording is not available but this Playlist includes previous recordings from the Takács and Emerson Quartets, to give you an idea of the works. I’ve also added the composer’s Five Bagatelles for two violins, cello and harmonium as a bonus.

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