Dvorak String Quartets
Given that they’re so infrequently performed in concert, Dvorák’s string quartets have done rather well on the recording front. These two works are among the greatest of all, with No 14, Op 105 (its completion post-dates Op 106) a towering masterpiece by almost any standards. Think of the oscillations between varied weather and song that sit at the heart of the three late symphonies and you’ll get the drift. The Wihan Quartet connects well with the first movement’s gritty arguments, with the Scherzo too, though the Emerson Quartet on their recent recording (DG, 8/10) are even more feisty and pointed. The slow movement is warmly played and my only quibble concerns the last few bars (from around 7'16") where a short-lived touch of discolouration rather spoils the effect. The Emersons keep more securely in tune (the Lindsays are also superb in this work) but my benchmark in this particular passage is the Smetana Quartet (Testament, 3/96), who sing the notes with unique soulfulness and dead-centre accuracy. Then again, these are live recordings and one must expect at least one or two minor imperfections. The D minor work is a personal favourite, especially the glorious, muted Adagio, music that is as memorable as the New World’s Largo and which the Wihans play most beautifully. In terms of eloquence, they’re second only to the Prague String Quartet (DG). The polka is ideally easy-going and the strutting finale (where Brahms and Schumann are audible influences) is pert and decisive. Indeed, if the only Dvorák quartet that you’re at present familiar with is the American, then this excellent CD will provide an ideal embarkation point for what should, in the long run, prove an immensely fruitful musical journey.