San Jose Chamber Music Society scored a big win with the appearance of The Pražák Quartet from Prague at the Trianon Theater in San Jose on March 12. Playing two quartets by Antonin Dvořák and one by Alexander von Zemlinsky, at first glance the program appeared to be very limited, considering the three works were composed over a span of only 17 years. One might wonder if the program lacked diversity. Would there be any variety in these apparently similar works?
Dvořák’s Quartet No. 10 began with a quiet, hushed sound, comforting and warm. It was clear from the beginning that this group of four individuals plays with a unified purpose, agreeing in the musical interpretation. Even the vibrato was consistently the same. Phrases unfolded with elegance, connected by a natural, flexible pacing. The second movement is a Dumka, a favorite of this composer that alternates fast and lively music with slow and mournful sections. The contrasts were vividly portrayed. The quartet carries the nickname of “Slavonic,” as the composer was asked to write this piece “in the Slavonic style” that he was so known for. In 1878, one year before it was composed, he had published his Slavonic Dances for piano duet and soon after arranged them for orchestra. A Bohemian spirit pervades the work.
The Austrian composer Zemlinsky was a generation younger than Dvořák, but the two shared the approval and support of Johannes Brahms. His String Quartet No. 1 appeared in 1896, cast in the classical four-movement tradition. Though it shows obvious influences from both Brahms and Dvořák, his musical language is entirely his own, reflecting post-Romantic qualities. As in the Dvořák performance, where the ensemble began with an ear catching opening sound, this one began with an equally notable sound, with conviction in its lively and outgoing character. Though quite different from the previous quartet, there were some similarities. The second movement Allegretto shares some of the qualities of the Dumka of Dvořák, with contrasting moods, well delineated in this performance. The final Vivace even displays some Bohemian spirit.
By the arrival of the third and final piece on the program, Dvořák’s Quartet No. 12, there was no concern about too much of the same style period. Nicknamed “The American,” the piece was composed in 1893 in America while the composer was Director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Whether this has an American flavor to the writing or that the Quartet No. 10 has true Bohemian characteristics, it’s hard to say. There is probably much in common, in that some of the roots of American traditional music come from Bohemia and other European cultures. A high level of cheerful character was maintained throughout. The slow Lento movement featured some gorgeous cello singing from Michal Kanka.
The Pražák Quartet is so comfortable with the repertoire that they can be daring and adventurous in their playing. They are experts at musical communication. Just as the opening sounds of the first piece was a warm welcome to the audience, the final notes of the last piece were played as a glorious and joyful sendoff. As an encore the group played a small waltz by Dvořák, a sweet dessert to a full meal of string quartet music.