Audiophile Audition: Dvorak Cypresses & Quartet No.13

Source: Audiophile Audition Published on March 18, 2013
by Gary Lemco

DVORAK: Cypresses for String Quartet; String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Op. 106 – Cypress String Quartet – Avie

The gorgeous talent of Antonin Dvorak in the string quartet medium has splendid accounts in this new addition to his cycle from the Cypress String Quartet.

The two quartet arrangements (rec. August-September 2012) by the Cypress Quartet derive from opposite extremes in the life of Antonin Dvorak, the 12 Cypresses (after the poet Moravsky (1833-1875) having been conceived in the ardor of first love during the 1860s, when Dvorak set his eye on Josefina Cermakova. Dvorak would arrange his original songs as quartet movements in 1887, then to be withheld from publication until 1921, when his son-in-law Josef Suk revised them. The first violin usually assumes the role of the melody line while the supporting instruments enrich the texture and deepen the harmonies. The G Major Quartet owes its conception to a period just after Dvorak’s 1895 permanent departure for Prague from New York as director of the new National Conservatory of Music. Dvorak had already begun his A-flat Quartet, Op. 105, but he laid it aside to devote five weeks to the G Major’s completion.

The 12 Cypresses embrace Dvorak’s youthful passion and exuberance with textural fervor. In a letter to his publisher Simrock, Dvorak wrote, “Think about a young man in love – this is what they are about.” The No. 2 “The dead heart awakes again” (Allegro ma non troppo) immediately strikes us with its chromatic intensity; the No. 7 “There lived once my sweetheart” renders us an Andante of exquisite lyrical power. “On the shore of the brook” No. 8 proffers a sort of horn call to open its plaint. Dvorak’s own instrument, the viola, takes the lead in No. 5 “The old letter in my book” and once more in No. 9 “My dearest one,” a Moderato with a sunset aura about it. A haunted majesty imbues No. 10 “There stands the ancient rock,” a conceit that might have informed Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The No. 11 combines Mendelssohn’s light grace with the rhythmic tricks learned from Smetana, the song “A soft slumber lies over the land” pulsing with a deep love of the native soil. The final song, “You ask why these songs of mine,” bears a martial air, heavy and decidedly passionate, yet informed by that sense of vista that permeates all of Dvorak’s looks over the subjects of his musings. The strong sense of Schubert’s influence from Death and the Maiden saturates the moody nostalgia of the moment.

The G Major Quartet has been characterized as Dvorak’s ode to thanksgiving for having returned to his native Bohemia. Its romantic Czech flavor permeates its rather simple procedure for the first movement Allegro moderato: two themes and one transitional passage. The leaping and fluttering first theme, with its rhythmic interest, interweaves with the folk tune second theme, and they move in Dvorak’s richly textured imagination with firm confidence, much relying on the concertante talents of first violin Cecily Ward and her companion in responsory sound, cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. The Andante again nods to Schubert, a haunted Adagio ma non troppo cantilena in Slavic mode that moves between E-flat Major and Minor through loosely structured variations. Darkly melancholy, the music may hearken to the American ethnic melodies Dvorak knew in Spillville, Iowa.

The energetic Molto vivace Scherzo has two trios, likely the influence of Robert Schumann, despite the fact that the music is a Slavonic Dance. In B Minor, this sprightly dance (a skocna) in pentatonic scale moves to calmer episodes in A-flat and D Major. Hints of the New World Symphony’s “pagan” energy often explode here, and the pizzicati resonate gallantly. Violin and viola (Ethan Filner) have their shared moment in the first episode. The hefty elan of this movement warrants repeated hearings. The final movement, Andante sostenuto – Allegro con fuoco proceeds in the manner of a melancholy dumka that alternates with a fiery main section that utilizes a dance motif from the opening movement, so rondo and cyclic forms merge rather brilliantly. Exuberance and high spirits reign, with the two low strings adding a distinct potency to the reunion of composer with his beloved roots, familial and metaphysical. The recording, from low noise floor Skywalker Sound studios, Marin County, California, manages to bring the Cypress Quartet well within the vicinity of one’s fireside, courtesy of engineers Mark Willsher and Judy Kirshner.