Thu, Jun 26, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Classical CD reviews

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

DVORAK: THE STRING QUARTETS, by Prague Quartet.

Dvorak’s string quartets are a joy from beginning to end. It’s not a question of the later ones being better than the earlier ones either — even the first, the composer’s Opus 2, is a rich and sensuous delight.

Yet they’re far less well-known than those of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bartok or Shostakovich. For me, though, only Mozart’s last ten are incomparably superior. As for the others, it’s a matter of temperament which you prefer, and my temperament lands me in the hands of Dvorak over and over again.

Dvorak wrote 14 string quartets, plus several piano quartets, quintets and sextets. His work in these other chamber music genres will be treated at a later date. Today we will consider just the string quartets, remembering that this has long been considered the purest of all musical forms.

The question of which recordings to buy used to be a relatively simple one, but the development of YouTube has thrown everything into confusion. Today it only takes one enthusiast to put a vast mass of recorded material online, making it easy to go for the free option, and listen to these versions without even considering the others. Despite this, we will consider the CD versions in their own right, while noting which are available on YouTube as we go.

Thirty years ago the routine choice for a complete set of these quartets was the one from the Prague Quartet on Deutsche Grammophon. (You might sometimes see the group called the “Prager Streichquartett,” but that’s just the Prague String Quartet in German). This is still available as a nine-CD boxed-set and, now at a near-bargain price, highly recommendable. The playing is intensely beautiful and the sound quality very fine. It’s currently most easily available from Amazon.co.uk at £28.49 (NT$1,358).

The Vlach Quartet never issued a complete set but, again in past years, their recordings of single quartets were treasured as of incomparable quality. Today they’re collectors’ items, but a few can thankfully be heard on YouTube, or bought from the UK Amazon site.

The old Vlach Quartet ceased operation in 1975, but then was re-launched, albeit with a totally different line-up, in 1982 as the Vlach Quartet of Prague. All critics seem to agree that the quality is still extremely high, and they’re in the process of recording all Dvorak’s quartets for the Naxos label.

This project is nearly complete, with only Quartets Nos: 2 and 4 still to appear. I approached Naxos last week and was told that the missing quartets were too long to fit onto one CD, but needed some extra items to go onto two CDs, and that Naxos was discussing possible recording dates with the artists.

The current eight CDs are numbered Naxos 8553371 to 8553378 and are widely available. (Some are also, in whole or in part, on YouTube.)

The entire cycle was recorded in 2008 by the Stamitz Quartet and is available as a budget-priced 10-CD boxed-set for a mere US$38 (NT$1,140). It’s what some people spend on a meal, but this is a feast for a lifetime. They’re gorgeously warm and evocative recordings, and no one could possibly go wrong in choosing them.

The problem is that this entire set from Stamitz has been copied onto YouTube — all Dvorak’s quartets, in other words, each one complete (audio only). How is it possible, then, to recommend the CDs themselves? Well, some people perhaps still prefer that format, and the price certainly means that this remains an astonishing bargain. The catalogue number is Brilliant Classics 99949.

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