Czech Piano Quartets
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Joseph Suk: Quatuor en la mineur, op. 1 - Vitezslav Novak: Quatuor en ut mineur, op. 7 - Bohuslav Martinu: Quartet / Quatuor avec piano Ames (Mahlon Darlington, violon - Jonathan Sturm, violon - George Work, violoncelle - William David, piano)
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Josef Suk (1874-1935) was a promising student of Dvorak who would go on to found the renowned Bohemian Quartet and achieve a formidable compositional career. His Piano Quartet in A minor (1891) is a remarkable opus 1. Initially a student work, it won the admiration of Dvorak and was summarily published. It begins with an “Allegro appassionato” of heated virility and heroism; an assertive first subject infused with dramatic flair, taken up again in the turbulent development section. Plenty of strong moments emerge in the “Adagio,” marked by a range of moods, from a somber and wistful opening to a buoyant and hopeful central section, and back to deep pessimism, only to end serenely. Things lighten up in the finale, an impetuous and jocose ride, hindered occasionally by more serious utterances.
Vitezslav Novak (1870-1949) was a student of Dvorak and studied violin at the Prague Conservatory. Like other Czech nationalists, a great deal of his music incorporates Slovakian folk song. The Piano Quartet in C minor (1894) is an exception, though, in that it utilizes instead the Dies Irae. In the opening movement, Novak employs the initial 4 notes of the “Dies Irae” incessantly as part of the primary theme, one that sets the mood as sober, portentous, and dramatic. Things get more intense in the turbulent development section. This is a fantastic and riveting opening movement, but things go off kilter in the cheerful and carefree “Andante.” Here Novak aims for Haydn-like simplicity and charm, with colors and fanfares that remind me of Copland. The “Dies Irae” returns in the finale, but this time it is transmogrified into an upbeat rondo, the 4-note motif used purely for its motivic properties.
Martinu needs no introduction. His Piano Quartet stands apart from Suk’s and Novak’s in both style and mood. The opening movement is full of nervous energy and spiky rhythms, bitonal writing, and a bright fugato section. It is quite effective and interesting. In the slow movement, Martinu looks inward with a string-dominated lamentation; indeed, the piano is absent for some time and the texture is that of a string trio. When the piano enters, it is incredibly animated, spinning away with spider-like vigor. The finale is a lively essay of modernism, with a syncopated jazz theme, ostinato figures, and tough dissonances redolent of Stravinsky and Bartok.
Bottom line: Chamber collectors should enjoy the piano quartets of Suk and Novak, which are rarely recorded and abound with Czech fire and energy. The Ames Quartet showcases remarkable balance, tone, and interpretative capability. I haven’t yet been disappointed by any of their performances.