As the Ballad shows, Dvorák was often quite as happy writing small-scale works as composing symphonies, quartets and opera. A letter to his Berlin publisher, Fritz Simrock, shows that Dvorák derived enormous pleasure, quite comparable with ‘composing a great symphony’, from writing his Bagatelles for two violins and viola. The immediate stimulus for these works was a discreet bit of domestic chamber music-making which Dvorák indulged in with a chemistry student, Josef Kruis, who lived in the same block of flats as the composer, and this amateur’s violin teacher, Jan Pelikán. The Terzetto in C major which Dvorák composed at the beginning of 1887 proved too tricky for Kruis, so he wrote a new set of works for the same combination, in which he played viola, entitled Cavatina, Capriccio, Romanza and Elegia. These were completed on 18 January 1887; within a week, Dvorák had arranged them for violin and piano as Four Romantic Pieces without the original titles.
The four movements work well in their new arrangement. In each of the movements, the solo string instrument leads off with the tune which, in the Allegro moderato and Allegro appassionato, turns out to be a fine example of Dvorák in lyrical vein, though with a tendency towards wistfulness. The vigorous second movement is angular and demonstrative, with an uncompromising folkish inflection that anticipates Janácek. The finale is an affecting and expressive Larghetto which brings the cycle to an attractive, if subdued, close.
from notes by Jan Smaczny © 1998