In 2010 Deutschlandradio Kultur began a joint project with the German label cpo to record the string quartets of Antonín Dvořák. This is a rich repertoire, since Dvořák composed fourteen quartets to which he assigned numbers (although not all of then had opus numbers). He also wrote string quartet arrangements of twelve of the love songs from his eighteen-song collection Cypresses, originally composed in 1865, along with two waltzes written for string quartet. Presumably the full scope of the project will cover all of Dvořák’s string quartet literature.
The performers for this project are the members of the Vogler Quartett, violinists Tim Vogler and Frank Reinecke, violist Stefan Fehlandt, and cellist Stephan Forck. The first volume in the series came out in November of 2012 with three of the numbered quartets: Opus 34 in D minor (9), Opus 51 in E-flat major (10, “Slavonic”), and Opus 96 in F major (12, “American”), along with seven of the Cypresses arrangements. The two-CD release also included the five Opus 47 bagatelles, composed for a quartet of two violins, cello, and harmonium (performed by Oliver Triendl). After a bit of a wait, the second volume was finally released about two weeks ago. This provides the remaining Cypresses arrangements, the fourth quartet in E minor (without an opus number), and the last two quartets, Opus 105 in A-flat major (14), and Opus 106 in G major (13). (Notice that the last two quartets were published in the opposite order from when they were written.) Neither of the releases is ordered either chronologically or by opus number.
It would be fair to say that Dvořák had a preference for major keys. He lived a long life, which was, for the most part, a happy and satisfying one. Thus, most of the content of these four CDs serves up highly upbeat rhetoric. By selecting Opus 96 as the first selection in the first volume, the producers clearly wanted to begin with familiar material. However, the Vogler Quartett brings a vigorous freshness to all of their performances; and, as a result, even Opus 96 is likely quickly to seize listener attention in its approaches to phrasing and tempo. On the more affectionate side, their Cypresses performances are very much evocative of the sound of a singing voice.
Those whose familiarity with Dvořák’s quartet repertoire extends beyond Opus 96 will probably find each of the volumes nicely balanced between the familiar and the “new encounters.” However, because both Opus 105 and Opus 106 were composed in 1895, I feel that the decision to provide them both in the second volume was a good one. I was also delighted that the producers were willing to “stretch the quartet concept” enough to include Opus 47. Because of the instrumentation, this music is seldom performed. The sonorities are definitely unconventional, but they are oddly charming in their own way.
Hopefully the wait for the third volume will not be as long as that for the second.