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Dvorák rarities on record considered by Robert Anderson

CD Review
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Dvorák remains irresistible, whether he is arranging himself or arranged by others. At first sight the whole of the Serenades CD would seem to be arranged. The three Slavonic Dances of opus 72 were planned by Dvorak for either piano duet or full orchestra. Here they are rejigged for double wind quintet by Vlastimi Mares, oboist of the Prague Wind Quintet. Serenades from Bohemia - Czech Nonet - Antonin DvorakThey go splendidly, and would be equally happy on a combination of Jew's harp and musical saw, for all I know. Nor is the opus 44 Serenade in D minor presented in its usual format, having been tailored to the Czech Nonet by Frantisek Hertl. This supplements Dvorák's scoring with horn and upper strings. Perhaps the textures are clarified, yet this rather more ambitious of Dvorák's two serenades cannot match the enchanting diversity of opus 22 in E major. In this case it is the familiar string orchestra version that is the arrangement. Dvorák originally conceived what now seems totally idiomatic on strings for the Beethoven septet combination with additional violin and piano but minus cello. The five movements sound even fresher with the greater variety of timbre. The horn, for instance, has a magnificent part, and it will be difficult to think of the waltz again without a clarinet to launch it. (Click here to listen.)

The arrangements among the 'Miniatures' are by Dvorák himself. Two string quartet waltzes come from the keyboard half dozen of opus 54, and four 'Cypresses' are transcribed for a quartet of songs Dvorák wrote in 1865. The original cycle had 18 songs and twelve of them were later arranged. Little of this music is familiar, and Dvorák has to calculate to a nicety every phrase in pieces lasting mostly less than three minutes. My favourites among them are slightly longer. The elegy that concludes the opus 75a 'Miniatures' is a fine achievement, with its broken violin phrases rising and falling in a tender lament of considerable emotional power. (Click to listen.) Equally impressive, if only for its contrapuntal skill, is the fourth of the 'Bagatelles' that has Dvorák devise a canon as expressive as it seems effortless. (Click to listen.) The longest piece is an Allegro vivace for string quartet that got no further than this opening movement. There is virtuoso exploitation of some distinguished and promising material. Why Dvorák set it aside and went on to beat a demanding deadline with the opus 61 quartet is not at all clear.

The two discs have a great variety of chamber combinations. The presence of a conductor for the ten players of the Slavonic Dances maybe tips their balance towards orchestral music. The Czech Nonet is more than 70 years old, having been formed in 1924 to the shape of Spohr's nine-instrument work, with five wind and four strings. The playing of their successors is neat and crisp, with exemplary clarity maintained throughout. The Panocha Quartet is more lyrical and expansive in style, phrasing this loveable music with obvious affection. The players come and go. The Miniatures dispense with cello, the Waltzes and Nocturne add a double bass (the former without Dvorák's authority); but it is the Bagatelles that have the most original grouping. Instead of the viola is the harmonium that stood in the house of Josef Srb-Debrnov, for whose musical evenings Dvorák devised the music. The harmonium is discrete almost to inaudibility, and emerges only briefly from continuo shadows to a moment of comparative glory. The tremulant stop that has instilled into so many church services a wobble of almost unbearable poignancy is totally eschewed.

Copyright © Robert Anderson, June 27th 1999

harmonia mundi      PRD 250129       DDD    65'44

Czech Nonet, Prague Wind Quintet


Octet-Serenade, preliminary version of opus 22 in E; Slavonic Dances opus 72 nos 2,3,8; Serenade in D minor opus 44, trascribed for nonet



Supraphon SU 3391-2 131       DDD      63'28

Panocha Quartet, with Jaroslav Tuma (harmonium), Pavel Nejtek (double bass)


Miniatures opus 75a; Two Waltzes from opus 54; Bagatelles opus 47; Quartet Movement in F; Cypresses nos. 2,3,9,11; Nocturne in B opus 40


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