The Fine Arts Quartet Plays Dvořák

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DVOŘÁK: String Quartet No. 4. String Sextet in A. Polonaise in A + / Fine Arts Qrt; *Anna Kreeta Gribajcevic, vla 2, Jens Peter Maintz, cel 2; +Stepan Simonian, pno / Naxos 8.574205

Now this is the kind of CD I really enjoy reviewing: a good older composer in three works that are not at all frequently played or recorded. Indeed, Dvořák’s “American” Quartet is so well known and so often performed that I wonder if most concertgoers even know there were earlier quartets, and the String Sextet isn’t as well-known as the Quintet.

The Fine Arts Quartet, which seems like it’s been around forever, was founded in 1946, but this incarnation of the group only goes back as far as 1983 when violinists Ralph Evans and Efim Boico became members. Well-known violist Gil Sharon is part of this new incarnation along with cellist Niklas Schmidt.

Like most modern string quartets, the Fine Arts has a lean sound profile with biting violins and a very tight ensemble sound, but this is a style that they and the now-legendary Yale Quartet actually pioneered back in the 1950s. Interestingly, this American approach really doesn’t sound terribly different from the majority of Eastern European ensembles then and now, such as the Vegh and Smetana Quartets. Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that the most bracing, energetic and non-sentimental performances are generally given by Eastern Europeans, and this style permeated America from the 1920s onward via the influx of such musicians as violinists Jascha Heifetz, Josef Szigeti and Nathan Milstein, cellists Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatagorsky, along with the early (and more interesting) Budapest String Quartet. It was also perhaps helpful that the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy also sent other similar musicians scurrying to our shores, some of whom went into chamber work and some of whom joined American orchestras as section players, sometimes lead players.

There are some remarkable things in this String Quartet, a few that Dvořák carried into later works and some that he didn’t, such as the use in the first movement of descending chromatic passages and vacillations from minor to major and back again, and it all goes past the ear so quickly that unless one is observant one is likely to miss some of it. Fine Arts does not linger on or exaggerate these moments, which is all for the better, for to do so would disrupt the musical flow and put too much of an undue emphasis on things that the composer simply wanted to be heard in time as the music progressed. They also do not linger on or drag out the slow second movement, marked “Andante religioso,” perhaps realizing that what seemed religious to Dvořák carries no religious connotations to others.

One aspect of the Sextet which I found interesting is that, rather than write for this combination in a “conversational” style, Dvořák chose to write for them almost consistently in ensemble, like a chamber orchestra. In fact, in my mind’s ear I could hear the second movement, titled “Dumka” (a Czech folk dance), being orchestrated and played in a symphony concert—but not, perhaps, with the right rhythmic lilt that the Fine Arts Quartet gives to it. The rapid third movement, “Furiant,” is also dance-like in character and quintessentially Dvořák, reminding one of the Slavonic Dances. We end with a Theme and Variations which starts out medium-slowly but really picks up some steam after the pause at the 2:20 mark.

We end with an even rarer Polonaise for cello and piano, a nice piece but more of a fun encore than a meaty dish. Overall, however, this is an exceptionally fine recording, in places quite interesting and in others entertaining.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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