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The opening Allegro starts in quasi fugal style with uncertain tonality, creating a somber atmosphere that rarely disappears during this long, ambitious work. The opening idea is periodically interrupted by quasi-orchestral textures, with much double stopping, as if straining at the restrictions of the string quartet medium; but then the principal second theme, in the relative minor, adumbrates with its distinctive dotted rhythms a Schubertian lyricism The usual sonata-form repetitions take place, but the formal joins are always blurred to give a sense of continuous development. At the end, in a characteristic Dvořák coda, the main theme returns very high on the first violin, perhaps suggesting peace at the last.
The second movement, Andante con moto, is a so-called dumka, a Slavic lament that is usually in duple time but here is in 3/8. Its characteristic ornaments sound improvisatory and the mood is maintained by a second theme that later acquires a chorale-like simplicity. At the close, the first theme returns only to fade into the distance.
The third movement, Allegro scherzando, is full of rhythmic shocks and reversals. Its main theme, although very different in mood, bears more than a passing resemblance to the opening theme of the first movement, perhaps an example of Dvořák’s penchant for cyclic forms. The Trio section is, in good classical style, strongly contrasting: a driven, almost obsessive exploration of the relative minor.
The last movement, an Allegro con brio, begins with an extended viola solo: an energetic, questioning, upward-leaping melody which, like passages in the first movement, seems often to be straining for orchestral effects. Almost Bartókian moments, with the violins in octaves seemingly in open opposition to the viola and cello, contrast with passages reminiscent of a Mendelssohnian scherzo, ending the quartet in an atmosphere of boisterous virtuosity.
from notes by Roger Parker © 2020