Antonín Dvořák, while enjoying his position as Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, conceived of a new 'national anthem' for America, having remarked that it seemed 'a pity that for America to use an English tune for one of its anthems.' The theme Dvořák invented finds its way in to his magnificent String Quintet in E flat (1893), a work which flowered in Spillville, Iowa, which boasted a substantial Czech community as well as a frequent visiting locale for Native American tribes. The rich harmonic and sonorous vocabulary of the composer emerges from the outset, Allegro non tanto, which allows the plangent, two violas to interact, while drum patterns and throbbing pedal points evolve in often pentatonic scales. The chromatic syntax—wavering between G minor and B flat major—no less manipulates dynamics ingeniously, alternating from pianissimos to lush fortissimos. True to Dvořák's late works—especially those that emerged from his American sojourn—the transitions within the sonata-form structure prove absolutely seamless, so that melodic and rhythmic invention virtually eliminates our sense of Classical architecture.
If the marvelous sonic interplay of the Takács—courtesy of engineer Simon Eadon at Wyastone Estate, 18-21 May 2016—had not already mesmerized our sensibilities, the B major Scherzo, Allegro vivo, from the first repeated note of the second viola, should enthrall any chamber music devotee. Dvořák may well have been thinking of the fierce Scherzo in Beethoven’s F major 'Rasumovsky' Quartet, Op 59 No 1. The middle section—with its own subdued drumbeats—has a poignant announcement from the first viola, Geraldine Walther, in the minor mode. The da capo takes a departure into a distant A flat major, pianissimo, before it remembers the middle section transposed into a stunning major-mode declaration. The Larghetto proffers a melancholy theme and five variations whose theme exploits some moving bass tones from András Fejér's cello. Here, the tune for 'My country, 'tis of thee' appears as the second half of the main theme. Tremolo effects and stunning modal harmonies saturate the movement, whose beauties certainly engross our principals. The occasional antiphons assume that easy charm of Dvořák at his most lyrical. Fejér's intensely passionate variation four has shadows of tremolos in his companions. The last variant projects both ferocity and tenderness, alternately. For his grand finale, Dvořák chooses a spirited Allegro giusto that likes dotted, Native Indian rhythm in rondo interrupted by elegantly legato, flowing melody, but only serving as a foil to the more than fifty bars of unbroken fortissimo that conclude this wild movement with a decisive, American hurrah.
The year 1895 marked the end of Dvořák's American venture, and he returned to Prague with a glad heart. His Quartet in A flat major provides evidence only of his Bohemian roots, opening Adagio ma non troppo—Allegro appassionato in figures that move from dark brooding into exuberant light. The Takács infuse the dark opening of the Adagio ma non troppo with an eerie menace, much in the spirit of Beethoven, the main theme’s exploiting a descending arpeggio that moves to a dotted rhythm upbeat. The violin and viola each has its contribution, lyrical versus rasping. After a kind of hunting motif, the powerful, often contrapuntal development moves into a 'circuitous route' in E minor. Throughout the movement, almost in spite of the sophistication of the layering, the music retains a kind of strutting, dance element intrinsic to this master’s late style.
Dvořák writes a marvelously syncopated Furiant in F minor for his second movement, the accents shifting to alternate duple and triple meters. The lovely Trio evolves almost invisibly form the last phrases of the main tune, here in consoling D flat major. First violin Edward Dusinberre intones sweet phrases in tandem with violin Károly Schranz and cello Fejér before the figures swing once more into the infectious da capo. Something of Beethoven’s capacity for expressive thanksgiving suffuses the Lento e molto cantabile, which opens in the manner of hymn’s awaiting variation procedures. The music moves in its interior from major into minor modes, and Fejér’s cello intones a drum-tap figuration. One can easily discern the influence this chromatic and expressive music would have on the likes of Janáček or Martinů. The late pages, fraught with pizzicato effects and another strutting series of riffs, lends a melancholy dance character to the movement, which closes in a brief homage to the middle section before fading away. The Finale: Allegro ma non tanto begins in a rush, from the gruff cello first, followed by feverish desire in the other instruments for a fiery dance. Dvořák repeats the opening page, assigning to this music a 'symphonic' status. Sunny and expansive, the music embraces A flat major with a Bohemian fertility of sound that makes us relish the Takács' fluid ensemble, which would seem to include how much each of the musicians remains fascinated by his colleagues.