ANTONIN DVORAK – The Final Link in the Chain

Czech Late Romantic composer Antonin Dvorak [1841–1904] wrote fourteen string quartets. For me the peak of his work in the genre are the last five, Nos. 10 to 14. I have previously discussed all but No. 11 so it seems right to complete the cycle. This four movement work runs a little over 37 minutes on the review CD, with the opening movement being nearly 14 minutes long.

This first movement, marked allegro, has a stunningly beautiful opening passage with shrill violins being very expressive at a moderate volume. This soon builds into a scintillating rhythmic passage, played with great power in a manner that only Dvorak can muster. A drop in intensity brings about several variations and a sense of peace. Gentle melodic lines are echoed by pizzicato cello. The dynamics go up a little, but the melodies are still very fine. A two-note motif is passed around all four instruments, eventually lingering on a violin. This is a sign for one of the opening themes to be restated, and it builds in intensity just like the first time. Many previous melodies are heard and the main melody is introduced again by long sustained lines.

Now variations begin to occur, and the piece becomes quietly melodic. The main theme is reharmonised, and continues on to another quiet section where the theme can be heard in the background. I know it’s taken a while to say it, but this is a splendid piece of writing. That nagging theme is ever present, but it is so wonderful. Again Dvorak reverts back to his main theme and variations, without ever being boring. A pizzicato cello introduces a new mood, quite plaintive, and building in volume, before launching into a frenzy which soon softens and as the end comes near, Dvorak once again hints at the main melody. There are some rather brash chords but the end is gentle.

The next movement is marked poco adagio, which sounds very promising. And so it is as lush chords support sparse melodies until some chordal flourishes occur. A return to the opening feeling is very precious, and ever so gentle. A flourish leads into a pause before Dvorak presents music of great beauty, at a gentle tempo. The volume of this movement has been very measured, suggesting a background soundscape which drifts away. This movement does not have the inherent sadness usually found in adagios, and this certainly makes it different.

A scherzo movement follows and it is interesting that it almost sounds Classical. Violins wander over ensemble harmonised passages, almost creating a kind of stasis. A pause ensues and a further passage of lilting violins eventually move into some mild, thrusting chords. Now we have an animated conversational passage and the tempo drops to the sound of a lamenting cello, which converses with the violins. More animation follows, with a descending violin line that I have heard earlier in the piece and another faded ending. This music doesn’t sound the way I usually experience the composer, but it is a fine movement, full of twists and turns.

The final, vivace movement features a spirited violin role with plenty of rapidly ascending and descending lines to be heard. For me this occasionally evokes Beethoven’s early quartets. Not for long however, as some of Dvorak’s pastoral nature rises to the surface. Now a virtuoso descending violin line disturbs the mood, which soon finds itself back into a gentle passage. The conclusion comes with a rush.

I’m a real sucker for these Dvorak ‘Late’ quartets. They don’t compete with Beethoven, but these five quartets deliver a sense of emotional cohesion that really draws me in. I have lately been listening extensively to these five works by the Panocha Quartet which is available as a 3-CD set, Dvorak: The Essential String Quartets on the Supraphon label. This set also contains The Cypresses but I have never found them very satisfying – oh well.

This set is on Spotify, and Quartet No 11 is on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Profoundly beautiful.


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