DVOŘÁK; BARTÓK; DOHNÁNYI String Quartets
Context is the principal factor that links these two programmes, with Dvořák as the common linchpin: an overwhelming musical presence in the case of the Signum Quartet’s ‘Alla Czeca’ programme, a prompt for musical nationalism for Quatuor Modigliani – though Dohnányi’s post-Romantic Third Quartet, poised somewhere in the midst of Brahms, Korngold and Strauss, is quite different to the moody extremes of Bartók’s Second Quartet.
The latter opens to a yearning harmonic blur, with a driven second-movement scherzo (its muted coda anticipating the evocative ‘night music’ episodes of Bartók’s maturity), and a slow finale where sullen, slow-burning climaxes cast a purposeful glance in the direction of the much later Divertimento for strings. Quatuor Modigliani maintain the tension without excessive intensity, focusing Bartók’s style with ease, although I would have welcomed a touch more seduction in the second movement’s Trio, where Bartók coyly tosses a mock-sentimental ballade between the instrument (from 3'52" into tr 6).
While Bartók’s Second Quartet occasionally looks forwards to his work from the 1930s, Dohnányi’s Op 33 casts an ear back to his Op 10 String Trio. Quatuor Modigliani push all the relevant buttons: romance, playfulness, caprice and quickfire contrasts. Their view of Dvořák’s American Quartet is bright and bushy-tailed, if not especially rustic or nostalgic. Best is the finale, which dances along at a brisk pace. The fuller-toned Signum Quartet are more prone to ruminate in the magnificent Op 106 Quartet, though compare their opening with the Pavel Haas Quartet (Supraphon, 12/10) and you soon latch on to which group is opting for maximum drama.
The Signum’s strength is in the way they etch Ervín Schulhoff’s entertaining – and occasionally touching – Five Pieces for string quartet of 1923. Their lilting, slightly sardonic manner with this music quite won me over, the fast and fiery ‘Alla Czeca’ third movement lending the programme its title, the tarantella finale bringing the set to a dizzying close. Suk’s Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘St Wenceslaus’ is a little too swift for my liking (try the marginally broader Talich Quartet on Alto), but is tenderly played nonetheless.
Given a choice between the programmes here, I’d opt for Quatuor Modigliani, though if the Dvořák quartets are your main priorities, the Pavel Haas, Lindsay (ASV) or Prague (DG) quartets will do nicely for Op 106, while the Panochas (Supraphon, 2/96) and Emersons (DG) each offer a memorable American.