The Winners of the Banff String Quartet Competition offer a wonderful sampling of Dvorak Chamber works!
Dvořák originally wrote his collection of Cypresses (Cypřiše) as songs when he was 23 and head over heels in love with one of his students, 16-year-old Josefa (Josefina) Čermáková, the daughter of a goldsmith. Dvořák’s 18 love songs, to intimate and somewhat sentimental texts by Gustav Pfleger-Moravský, took him a little over two weeks to compose. Josefa did not return Dvořák’s attention and the cycle remained unpublished – though eight years later, Dvořák again fell in love, this time with Josefa’s younger sister Anna, with whom he was to share a long and comfortable marriage. He turned to the songs several times throughout his career. “Think about a young man in love – this is what they are about,” he wrote when publishing eight of them as his Love Songs, Op. 83. Then, in the spring of 1887, Dvořák made a version of a dozen of these gentle, lyrical songs for string quartet. He called them Cypresses, only slightly changing the original songs to best preserve their freshness and directness. Not published until 1921, the pieces are attractive, immediately appealing and full of the musical hallmarks of the Dvořák we know from the works of his maturity.
Dvořák spent Christmas 1895 at his country home at Vysoká, just outside Prague. He was working confidently and had already completed the String Quartet in G, B.192, Op. 106, his thirteenth quartet, over a four-week period, in November and early December. He spent Christmas Day putting the final touches to yet another quartet and just five days later, this quartet, too, was finished. Dvořák had composed two of his finest quartets in less than two months. However, the ease and pleasure with which he created them came after a period when the ink had run dry.
Behind him was a second visit to the United States. Artistically, it had been a success. He could look back with pride on the new cello concerto, the New World Symphony, the American String Quartet and more. But Dvořák had felt cut off from his friends and relatives. He had been isolated from the Bohemian countryside and from a life that provided inspiration for his creativity. “Oh, if only I were home again!” the homesick Dvořák had written from New York. He and his wife returned to Bohemia for good in the spring of 1895. Once back in familiar surroundings, Dvořák resumed his former routine. He started the day with an early morning stroll in Karlsplatz Park and taught at the Prague Conservatory. He checked the comings and goings of the railway trains he loved to watch. He had regular evening meetings with younger musicians and actors in Mahulik's restaurant and with leading Prague artists at Friday soirées at the home of his friend, the architect Josef Hlávka.
Work on the G major quartet freed a creative block that had lasted for nine months, the longest fallow period in Dvořák’s life. Now he could write: "I work so easily and everything goes ahead so well that I could not wish it better." The two String Quartets, Opp. 106 and 105 (written in this order) can be viewed as a summing up of all that he found good in the world. They are an affirmation of life and nature and, as his last chamber works, reveal a total mastery of the medium. The G major Quartet opens in a positive, assertive manner. Its first theme is joyous and forward driving. It contrasts with a lyrical, folksong-like second theme that is passed around the instruments. Dvořák's craft is superb and carries over to the slow movement, the centrepiece of the quartet. The Adagio is eloquent and elegantly written, lofty in ambition, and one of the composer's finest string quartet movements. A busy and vigorous Scherzo follows, Mendelssohn-like at times, but with a touch of country earthiness. The finale begins exuberantly but includes wistful, somewhat nostalgic music in its pages. It also brings in echoes of the opening movement before being swept along to an affirmative, joyful conclusion.
The two Waltzes, B.105, Op. 54 started life in 1879, with a request for dance music for a ball organised by the Národní Beseda, a patriotic organisation in Prague. Dvořák and other leading composers, including Smetana and Fibich, were each asked to provide a series of linked waltzes. Dvorák soon realized, however, that his waltzes were more appropriate to concert or salon performance than dancing, so he composed an altogether new set of dances for the ball called Prague Waltzes. He then re-worked the original music into a set of eight waltzes for piano and arranged the two most popular movements for strings. The first is a gently rocking and distinctly Czech waltz, with faster-paced episodes. The Allegro vivace has the character of one of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances.