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Dvořák's effervescent 'American' quartet is performed by an exceptional new group fast making a name for itself.
Given Dvořák’s extensive oeuvre of chamber music, it is surprising that few complete surveys of his string quartets exist. We hope that this project will go some way towards redressing the balance. Dvořák wrote fourteen quartets, although most are seldom played today. Being a violist (as we violists like to remind everyone!) it was natural for Dvořák to turn to the medium of the quartet throughout his life. For our first recording we present Dvořák’s best-loved quartet alongside two lesser-known works, pairing the famous ‘American’ with the lesser-known Quartet No 5 in F minor, written exactly twenty years beforehand. Josef Suk’s brief and deeply moving Meditation acts as a fitting postlude to our disc. In fact, Suk was the second violinist of the Bohemian Quartet, and this very piece received its emotional premiere at the Rudolfinum on the eve of the Feast of St Wenceslas in 1914.
As a group we have grown so much by focusing on Czech music and the very particular challenges that it presents. We are very grateful to David Takeno, Miguel da Silva, and Isabel Charisius for their inspiration and advice, and the Chapelle Musicale Reine Elisabeth and Snape Maltings for providing spaces to work and record. Steve, Nick and Mike of Signum Records have been wonderful, steering the project through with love and care, and we are deeply indebted to them all.
The composer Antonín Dvořák tried his hand at many forms—symphonies, concerti, oratorios, operas, sacred music and, of course, chamber music. This latter genre yielded a plethora of musical invention, though surprisingly few of his chamber works are familiar today. In fact Dvořák wrote fourteen string quartets, as well as several arrangements, returning to this combination repeatedly throughout his compositional career. Some of these are frequently performed, such as his ‘American’ Quartet, Op 96, composed in 1893. But hidden gems remain, including the earlier Quartet No 5 in F minor, composed in 1873, which has moments of breath-taking emotional depth and beauty. This disc juxtaposes these F minor and F major works, and also includes the poignant Meditation on an old Czech hymn ‘St Wenceslas’, Op 35a, by Josef Suk, Dvořák’s son-in-law, as a postlude.
Dvořák’s String Quartet No 5 in F minor, Op 9, will be familiar to some by virtue of its beautiful second movement, later reincarnated as the Romance for Violin and Orchestra, Op 11. He began work on the quartet in September 1873 and had completed it by the start of October, shortly before his wedding to Anna Čermáková the following month. Notwithstanding the personal happiness of his marriage, this was a difficult period for Dvořák professionally. The first version of his opera King and Charcoal Burner had just been withdrawn from the programme of the Provisional Theatre (Prozatíimní divadlo), where he had resigned as principal viola two years prior, on account of its difficulty. Bedřich Smetana, the theatre’s musical director, lamented, ‘it is a serious work, full of ideas and genius, but I don’t believe it can be performed’. The opera’s rejection forced a moment of intense self-criticism for Dvořák, leading to the destruction of many of his works written prior to 1871, as well as newer pieces he considered unsatisfactory. It was against this backdrop that Dvořák turned once again to the string quartet.
Initially the work was taken up by a quartet led by Antonín Bennewitz, an eminent violin professor at the Prague Conservatory, but this was to result in yet another unfortunate setback. Although the weekly Czech music journal Hudebni listy had advertised that the Bennewitz Quartet would perform the piece in the final concert of their next season, in the event no such performance took place. (Anecdotally, members of the quartet were said to have criticised the composition’s ‘lack of quartet style’.) Outraged, Dvořák ripped out the title page, together with its dedication, and the quartet was not performed in public for many decades. It was another bitter disappointment for the young composer. Ultimately the work did not see the light of day until a performance by the Kramar Quartet in Prague on 11 January 1930, following posthumous publication by Gunter Raphael at Breitkopf and Härtel.
As is typical of Dvořák’s early music, this quartet is relatively long, lasting well over half an hour. Unusually, especially for a multi-movement work of such duration, the work is mono-tonal, with every movement revolving around F minor (albeit for occasional forays into the major mode). Only a few years after the quartet’s completion, the composer and theorist Ernst Pauer described F minor as ‘a harrowing key’, which is ‘especially full of melancholy, at times rising into passion’. While such blanket claims of course need to be treated with care, Pauer’s description seems apt for this work. The first movement opens plaintively, with a hushed triple-metre lament intoned by the second violin and cello. In this moderato introduction the initial statements of the theme have a tendency to tail off inconclusively, until suddenly the music erupts into a fraught dialogue between the voices in the allegro con brio, redolent of Haydn’s Stürm und Drang textures. The opening dotted-note motif of the piece saturates the score, holding on with such tenacity that a second theme only gradually emerges out of the accompaniment, in the relative major key of A flat. A lengthy development and extended coda make for a long (630-bar) essay in sonata form here—of symphonic proportions and aspirations.
When Dvořák recast the somewhat Mendelssohnian second movement for solo violin and orchestra he titled it 'Romance', and this surely captures the essence of this music—a heartrending song, at times despairing and at times hopeful, and always deeply felt. Its bittersweet sentiment relies on the juxtaposition of two keys—F minor and A flat major—throughout; indeed, the movement begins in one key and ends in the other. Although the third movement is titled 'Tempo di valse', it is more a waltz in name than in sound. The waltz’s characteristic ‘oom-pa-pa’ accompaniment is replaced here by restless syncopations throbbing in the inner voices, while the first violin launches a searing melody over the top. The outer sections of the movement insist resolutely on F minor, the duple-metre Schumannesque ‘trio’ providing relief with an initial turn to F major, before momentum picks up and the parallel minor reasserts itself. Perhaps the most unsettling moment of the whole work comes at the start of the final movement, which begins with an off-tonic tremolando in the violins and cello, with the viola bringing the material the cello line has in the first movement Allegro to centre stage. The stormy weather and orchestral rumblings of the opening return, before yielding to a touching viola melody. This essay in sonata form contrasts this soft, lyrical primary theme with a distinctive secondary subject in the first violin, which is characterized by syncopations giving it a folk dance flavour. This latter theme, combined with the movement’s final move to F major, makes for an exuberant virtuosic ending to the quartet.
In 1892 Dvořák left Europe to take up a new position teaching at the recently founded National Conservatory of Music of America, in New York City. He was lured over the Atlantic by a lucrative salary and a contract that promised four months each summer at his ‘free and absolute disposal’. In 1893 Dvořák spent his first such summer in Spilville, Iowa, and the String Quartet No 12 in F major, Op 96, ‘American’ was composed there. Although he had written other chamber music during this period, a gap of twelve years separates the ‘American’ Quartet from his previous string quartet. Dvořák had already become fascinated with the songs of African Americans and Native Americans, along with folk songs of the Irish and Scottish immigrant populations. Although Dvořák does not directly quote any such songs in the quartet, it clearly shows some reference to their styles, just as the earlier ‘Slavonic’ Quartet demonstrates his absorption of Slavic folk music in his writing; Dvořák was not an ethnomusicologist or collector of folksong in the manner that Bartók was to become.
The first movement is in the pastoral key of F major. It starts with a simple semiquaver figure flitting between two notes in the violins, reminiscent of the Waldweben (‘forest murmurs’) in Wagner’s Siegfried. The viola then opens the movement with a lackadaisical, lyrical, pentatonic melody. The second subject, in A major, is also pentatonic in construction. In contrast with the earlier Quartet No 5, this development is notably short. It climaxes with a fugato passage, which leads back to the recapitulation. The second movement contains a passionate duet between the first violin and cello, accompanied by an extended viola ostinato (such repetitive rhythmic and melodic patterns are typical of Dvořák’s American chamber music). Following a gradual heightening to its climax the music subsides, with one last utterance of the melody by the cello. The third movement—a scherzo—contains yet another pentatonic theme, albeit transposed into the minor for the inner ‘trio’ section. It is supposed that one of the first violin’s melodic motifs is and imitation of the bird-call of a scarlet tanager, native to Spilville. Whether he was evoking the chugging of a steam train (Dvořák was famously a locomotive enthusiast) or Native-American drum rhythms, as others have argued, there can be no doubt there can be no doubt about the ‘American-ness’ of the finale, which closes the work in a spirited, boisterous fashion.
Musicologist Hartmut Schick claims that, ‘in America, Dvořák had written chamber music that finally breaks out of the European tradition, even further than do the string quartets of Arnold Schönberg’. There are certainly ways, beyond simply evoking a few characteristic sounds of America, in which the ‘American’ Quartet constitutes a bold step away from the European tradition of quartet writing. Among other unusual facets, we witness in this work a highly unusual degree of structural and motivic freedom, with new themes introduced late and unexpectedly, a pronounced reliance on rhythmic ostinato, and prolonged passages of deliberate harmonic simplicity. Even more remarkable is that Dvořák apparently sketched the outline of the work in merely three days, starting on 8 June, and finishing the work in its entirety by the end of the same month. He wrote on the manuscript thus: ‘Thanks be to the Lord God. I am satisfied. It went quickly.’
Josef Suk was Dvořák’s composition student and son-in-law, and in his role of second violinist in the Bohemian Quartet was a chief exponent of Dvořák’s chamber music. Suk’s Meditation on an old Czech hymn ‘St Wenceslas’, Op 35a, is based on a hymn whose text reads:
Saint Wenceslas, liege of Bohemia,
Our prince, pray for us to God, the Holy Spirit!
You are heir to Bohemia, forget not your people,
Let us not perish, nor our progeny, Saint Wenceslas!
The origins of this hymn, which is known as the Svatý Václave, can be traced back to the twelfth century, and it remains popular to this day. Indeed, Dvořák references it in his Hussite Overture of 1883. Suk’s Meditation was composed in 1914, around the outbreak of war. An associate of the composer had seen confidential documents indicating that the Bohemian Quartet would be forced to open their concerts with the Austrian anthem, and this piece was intended to provide something that resounded with the Czech nationalist spirit. Just two days after its completion the work was premiered on 27 September 1914 at the Rudolfinum, on the eve of the Feast of St Wenceslas. Suk was evidently eager to have his new piece performed as soon as he could, writing out the parts himself. A work that is both heartfelt and nostalgic, it would have pulled at the heartstrings of its intended audience.
Rosalind Ventris © 2018