Second in popularity only to the Ninth Symphony "From the New World," Dvorák's Twelfth String Quartet – which was dubbed the "American" Quartet by the public and media rather than the composer himself – is a work nearly synonymous with the composer's tenure in the United States. These were not the only two works inspired by his cross-sea voyage, however. The Thirteenth String Quartet in G major, Op. 106, though not imbued with the same folkloric characteristics, also came about following the composer's return from the States. The popularity of the "American" Quartet has resulted in a work that is arguably overplayed, making it difficult for new ensembles to find anything new or unique to say about it.
Classical music listeners resort to ethnic and national generalizations too often. Some of the most insightful Beethoven interpreters were French, and there are plenty of classic non-Czech recordings of Dvorák. Yet there's something uniquely satisfying about this version of the much-recorded Slavonic Dances (both sets, Op. 46 and Op. 72), and the satisfaction has something to do with the all-Czech origins. Take for example the match between the superb sound, recorded in Prague's Rudolfinium hall, and the texture of Jirí Belohlávek's Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, an ensemble he has molded into his own.
Nicola Porpora, a contemporary of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and Haydn (and a very young Mozart) is best remembered today as a famous singing teacher and opera composer. During his long career (he lived to age 81) he suffered many employment-related difficulties and disappointments that caused him to move frequently. Naples (where he was born), Venice, Dresden, and Vienna (where he taught Haydn) all enjoyed Porpora's reputable presence, and he even spent a period in London at the behest of a group seeking to unseat Handel and his opera company from its preeminent position. In addition to his operas and vocal music, Porpora wrote instrumental works such as the six violin sonatas featured here, which are drawn from a set of 12. Although anyone familiar with Italian Baroque and early Classical-style solo violin music will discover nothing particularly original on this generally fine recording, if you enjoy that genre and period you'll find much here to indulge and satisfy your taste.
String quartet fans will relish this excellent release from ECM. Although the Shostakovich 8th is one of the most over-recorded pieces in the string quartet literature, the performance here is worth having, and is combined with a somewhat familiar but not as widely recorded piece by Webern (for those who might be afraid to listen to anything by Webern, let me assure you that this is a most lovely, lyrical, hauntingly beautiful work, not at all daunting) and a quartet by a composer that will be unfamiliar to most, Emil Burian (1904-1959), whose String Quartet No. 4 is a haunting piece that makes for an attractive finish for this fine CD by the Rosamunde Quartet. The sound quality is rich and radiant in the best ECM tradition.
Recordings that include strings quartets by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern are common, but an album that includes music for quartet and voice by each of them is a rarity. Schoenberg's Second String Quartet, with a part for soprano in its third and fourth movements, is standard repertoire, but the version of Berg's Lyric Suite with a vocal part in the final movement is highly unusual, and Webern's bagatelle with voice, an unpublished movement apparently once intended to be part of the Six Bagatelles, Op. 9, receives what is probably its first recording. Novelty aside, the high standards of these performances make this a formidable release. Founded just before the turn of the millennium, Quatuor Diotima plays with the assurance and mutual understanding of a seasoned ensemble. The quartet has a lean, clean sound and the ensemble is immaculate, playing with exquisite expressiveness, an ideal combination for this repertoire.