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String Quartet No 5 in F minor, Op 9

composer

 
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 The first version of his opera King and Charcoal Burner had just been withdrawn from the programme of the Provisional Theatre (Prozatíimní divadlo), where he had resigned as principal viola two years prior, on account of its difficulty.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.

from notes by Rosalind Ventris © 2018

Recordings

Dvořák: String Quartets Nos 5 & 12
SIGCD555Download only 3 May 2019 Release

Details

Movement 1: Moderato – Allegro con brio
Track 1 on SIGCD555 [13'49] Download only 3 May 2019 Release
Movement 2: Andante con moto quasi allegretto
Track 2 on SIGCD555 [8'01] Download only 3 May 2019 Release
Movement 3: Tempo di valse
Track 3 on SIGCD555 [2'46] Download only 3 May 2019 Release
Movement 4: Finale: Allegro molto
Track 4 on SIGCD555 [6'44] Download only 3 May 2019 Release

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