Saturday, January 3, 2009

CD review: Delray String Quartet, works by Dvorak


By Greg Stepanich

For its first commercial disc, the Delray String Quartet has turned to two of the most popular and most recorded chamber works of Antonin Dvorak -- the American String Quartet (No. 12 in F, Op. 96) and the Piano Quintet No. 2 (in A, Op. 81).

Venturing into this beloved territory carries risks of unfavorable comparisons, but on the whole this is a respectable release, and sometimes a good bit better than that. The pianist Tao Lin does a fine job as the pianist in the Quintet, and while these readings of the pieces are not likely to supplant some of the more eminent versions in the catalog (the Emerson Quartet, for instance), newcomers to these pieces would not go far wrong by choosing the Delray version as their first.

That's chiefly because these musicians -- violinists Mei-Mei Luo and Laszlo Pap, violist Richard Fleischman, cellist Ian Maksin and pianist Lin -- are good, veteran players who know what they're doing. Their experience shows on this record, with attention to detail that sometimes seizes the ear, such as the masterfully handled transition to the recapitulation in the first movement of the American, or the sudden, beautiful mood change the group adopts as it moves into the trio of the Quintet's furiant.

Things are generally solid technically, too, with some rough spots here and there, such as the tuning shakiness in the violin octave passages at the end of the Quintet's first movement. Also in that same piece, the fugato section of the finale starts with admirable crispness but runs into a bit of trouble when all the instruments have joined in. On balance, though, there is enough strong musicianship here to carry the day.

The American Quartet is one of the most crowd-pleasing quartets in the literature, and not just in Dvorak's work list. The Delrays give it a mature, reflective interpretation, luxuriating in the slower sections of the third and fourth movements at the cost of some much-needed energy, particularly in the finale, where a more vigorous sense of forward motion would help make the piece really fly.

There is a depth and warmth to the Delray's playing that makes up for some of that, with the first movement distinguished by well-judged light and shade that adds a welcome variety of mood. The second movement, the crown jewel of the piece, is beautiful from beginning to end, with tender soloing from Luo and Maksin, who make much of the haunting main melody without overdoing it. The effect is sad and somewhat tense, which works well.

Lin proves a good partner for the Delrays in the Quintet, perhaps rushing things a bit here and there, but he's a very tasteful player, and he shows this to strong effect in the second movement dumka, playing the introduction with great gentleness as he sets the stage for Fleischman's dark-hued presentation of the main theme. There is a good interplay between piano and strings throughout, which highlights the collegiality of Dvorak's writing.

As with the American Quartet, the Quintet is best in the first two movements, with a very leisurely pace for the opening bars that makes a very effective contrast with the drama that ensues shortly thereafter. The dumka on the whole is perhaps the best performance on this disc, with its shifting moods of delicacy, melancholy and joyousness expertly balanced and sustained by the five players for maximum narrative effect.

As noted, the mood of the Poco tranquillo midsection of the scherzo is very attractive, but the furiant itself sounds somewhat labored, and the finale needs more headlong drive; it's a shade cautious, and that drains the music of some of its sparkle.

This disc has been released on the quartet's own label, Poinciana Records, and while no studio or engineer is credited on the disc, it was recorded at Miami's legendary Criteria Studios, now part of the Hit Factory. It has a good deal of upfront presence for all the instruments, which gives it almost the sense of being set down live. The other benefit of this is that you can hear all the accompaniment figures and internal lines, and that also adds to the immediacy of the sound.

The one key failing here is the information sleeve, which has a nice photo of a poinciana tree and part of a stringed instrument, but the rest is devoted to biographies of each of the players and a truncated biography of Dvorak. There are no timings listed for the movements, and as I mentioned, no indication of where the record was made or who engineered it.

The effect, unfortunately, is that of a vanity production, particularly with the line "Tao Lin on the Steinway piano," which is an old-fashioned middlebrow plug that isn't necessary and takes away from the seriousness of the musical enterprise on the disc. A much more modest, but informative sleeve could have been devised on these four pages, and that would help promote the disc rather than take away from it.

Ultimately, it's the music that matters most, though, and the Delray String Quartet in its five years has put on a good series of concerts and now has a decent disc to call its own. The next challenge surely will be to record fresh repertoire that the Delrays can call their own, which would mark another advance for this group.

The Delray String Quartet performs Sunday afternoon, joined by oboist John Dee in the Oboe Quintet in C minor, K. 406, of Mozart, which is a transcription by Humbert Lucarelli of the composer's own arrangement of his K. 388 wind serenade. Also on the program is the String Quartet No. 2 in D major of Alexander Borodin, source of hit songs for the musical Kismet. 4 p.m. Sunday, Colony Hotel, Delray Beach. Tickets: $35. Call: 213-4138.

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