By Cristina Schreil

albumDvořák: String Quartet, Op. 105, and String Quintet, Op. 97
Takács Quartet; Lawrence Power, viola
(Hyperion)

Many know that when Dvořák journeyed to the new world, he wrote a symphony. A new recording by the Takács Quartet and violist Lawrence Power presents the “American” String Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 97, which emerged after the Czech composer took time from teaching in New York City to visit the Bohemian community of Spillville, Iowa, in the summer of 1893. There, he also encountered Native American culture and entertainers, an experience that likely influenced the work.

“Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, Brahms, Bruckner, everybody wrote viola quintets. Why is that? Because two violas sound even better than one,” Takács violist Geraldine Walther says with a warm laugh. “It’s just such a fantastic sonority and if you get Lawrence Power in there it’s really, really a wonderful thing.”

Also on the album is String Quartet No. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 105—Dvořák’s last—composed after he returned to Bohemia. “A-flat major is quite a difficult key to play in, so that was a big challenge to play that piece, but I really love it. We all love that piece,” Walther adds. She took time to speak about the works and the recording process.

How did this project with Power come together?

We have played with Lawrence Power on the Brahms quintets and that was a fantastic experience. I love working with him. He’s always doing some wild, very free, very expressive thing, and I love that. It would constantly be a challenge to keep up with him. He doesn’t hold back. He really goes for it—well, I think our quartet is that way, too, [we] really go for it—and so we hit it off in that respect.

And why Dvořák?

We had learned the [quintet] and played it in the States with our viola professor here [at the University of Colorado Boulder], Erika Eckert who was in the Cavani String Quartet, and we’ve enjoyed playing it with her. The slow movement for instance goes through all kinds of keys and a million flats and we had to work hard to play that in tune with each other. It’s a beautiful piece. Audiences seem to love it, too. It has a very joyous last movement and a beautiful set of variations for the slow movement. It’s full of invention.

Then we thought we’d love to play the last quartet in A-flat major, Op. 105, because it’s so beautiful. It was his very last quartet.

Dvořák also played viola. What does he achieve with two in the quintet?

He wrote beautifully for the viola. It has a big second viola part. It’s full of gorgeous melodies and it opens with the second viola. The end of the first movement is also the second viola kind of rolling everything into the end of the movement. The second movement also starts with the second viola. It has opportunities for everybody, really.

It all lies in a wonderful range for the instrument and feels so right. He must’ve known how that would feel. Although I have to say in the A-flat major, quartets don’t lie as well sometimes. It’s a real challenge to get them to sound unlabored and to just hear the music and not the effort. That’s what our goal, of course, is as performers—that no one should be aware of whatever we have to do to make it sound natural and easy. The A-flat major, especially the last movement, I’m sure if you ask any other quartet, they’ll agree with you that it’s a challenge—first of all because it’s long and second, by that time you’re totally tired. [Laughs.] When we get to it in performance, our cellist András lets out a big sigh and just sort of prepares himself. You relax and rely on all the hours you put into it, learning the parts and rehearsing. It all comes out in the wash.

When many people think of Dvořák they think of the New World Symphony. How does the quintet showcase what made his time in America special?

It has those folky kinds of rhythms and folky tunes . . . you almost feel like they’re folk tunes. If you’re thinking “19th-century America,” that’s what music was. His melodies are very direct and I’m sure they were influenced by the Native Americans that he saw and heard, or folk musicians. He must have heard some people play music in Spillville, Iowa. If you combine all of that with this probably wistful longing for home—he must have been homesick—that all just rolled into it. It’s a wonderful combination. And the two violas, I have to say, add so much.

In composing these two works, Dvořák had embarked on important journeys. Does that add to the playing experience?

Yes, I guess it does. It ties things together. It puts a perspective on it. Opus 105 and 97, they’re pretty close to the end of his life, you know? They have some incredibly sad parts to them, both pieces. Very moving. And now on the other hand that feeling of warmth and lightness that only Dvořák seems to give us . . . you feel like all is right with the world when things come together in the final measures of one of those slow movements. He makes it all right in the end.

What was the recording process like?

We are blessed with two of the most wonderful people in the business, producer Andrew Keener and engineer Simon Eadon. They are, if not the best, two of the few in the handful of very, very fantastic people to work with. They make it as easy as it could possibly be. Sometimes when you’ve been recording for three or four days and you’re tired and you’re going back over something and you can’t quite get it—at first everything is easy because you’re not tired—they’ll just turn on the recording and [we’ll] get it when we’re hardly trying. Then Andrew goes, “Well, we got it!” We go and just hug him and kiss him because sometimes it’s like trying to swat a fly to get this thing in tune when you’re tired and you’ve been recording for some days before that. Everybody who does it knows what I’m talking about; your brain just gets fried after a few days. 

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