DVORÁK:  String Quintet in A minor, Op. 1.  String Quintet in E, Op. 97
Vlach Quartet, Prague with Ladislav Kyselák, violist
NAXOS 8.553376 (B) (DDD) TT:  65:04

The Vlach Quartet Prague (formerly called the New Vlach Quartet, successor to the original Vlach) has been recording Dvorák's music for Naxos since 1995, and it's my fault I haven't have bought any of their discs, although I've seen them on budget-label sale tables at the local Tower store. I've owned this delectable repertory on a plethora of SDs down through the years, played by the Smetana, Panocha and Prague String Quartets (the latter especially, on DGG), but past experience with many a mediocre group on midprice and budget labels has made me gun-shy and dollar-wary. This CD is my first exposure to the Vlach Prague, joined by second violist Ladislav Kyselák in performances recorded May 30-31, 1997.

Next time I'm in the vicinity of Tower—assuming they haven't weeded out Naxos along with all those dozens of independent labels to keep bankruptcy wolves from the door (founder Russ Solomon invested U.S. profits in a vast overseas expansion that failed to meet expectations)—I shall make amends. The mature quartets of Dvorák haven't been on the premises since I sold the bulk of my LP/SD collection back in '83—six cabinets full, each measuring 7 feet high by 2 feet wide, with six shelves per.

The Vlach Prague foursome and their guest play these antipodal works forthrightly and full-heartedly—Op. 1 from 1861, at least 15 years before Dvorák was accorded belated recognition throughout Central Europe, and Op. 97, begun 32 years later in Iowa and completed in New York City. The Vlach Prague's command of idiom is irreproachable, and their freshness a frosty Mint Julep at the end of a hot summer day. Dead-center intonation goes hand-in-glove with rhythmic nuance and tonal ripeness. Neither performance is precious or overstudied, although the woodshedding necessary to produce such musical rewards had to have been formidable.

The Op. 1 Quintet is a Bohemian outpouring, Schubertian in its sweetness and shifts from major to minor. Op. 97 has been called "American," "Indian," even negroid (long before the adjective/noun Afro-American was coined). But like the Ninth Symphony "From the New World" it is Czech at heart, with expressive depths that bespeak the composer's age, and his longing to be home once more. Add recorded sound at once meaty and bold, serve it with Keith Anderson's elegant annotations, and you have a meal for gourmets.

R.D. (May 2001)