Dvorak String Quintet

A chance meeting between fellow passionate audiophiles Luc Van der Heyden and John Bowers at a 1969 Amsterdam hi-fi show led to a life-long partnership between the two men with Van der Heyden heading up Bowers & Wilkins Belgium. It also led to this wonderful recording now available as a studio-quality and 5.1 surround sound download.

The String Quintet, Op. 97, was written in 1893, during Dvořák’s stay in America, as director of New York’s National Conservatory of Music, immediately following the penning of his ‘American String Quartet,’ Op. 96. Dvořák composed this masterwork of the quintet literature between 16 June and 1 August during his summer holidays in America’s Midwest, in the provincial town of Spillville, a Czech immigrants’ settlement. The manuscript score bears the entry: “third work composed in America.” As with Op. 96 and the Symphony No. 9, ‘From the New World,’ the work contains an abundance of ‘American’ references.


For their recording of the Scherzo in B major included on this CD, the Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet placed great emphasis on faithfulness to the composer’s original intentions, resulting in an extremely idiomatic reading of the work’s folk references, such as those in the contrabass. The movement features a rhythmic ostinato in duple metre (overlaid with an extremely slender and simple tune), frequently asserted by musicologists to refer to the drum accompaniment in Indian dances. Nevertheless, features of Dvořák’s Bohemian musical homeland manage to find their way into this final string quintet, however not isolated, but in a fine alloy of European and American ingredients, melding Old Europe and New World into one united musical soul.

Over the years, the Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet has become one of the best ensembles in its field, gaining a world-wide reputation. The repertoire recorded on this CD is in safe hands with this ensemble, and the interpretation – from both a musical and technical point of view – is truly sublime. The recording was made in the small hall of the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven, which possesses an ideal combination of intimacy and sonority and highly suitable for small string ensembles – it had also been recently been equipped with a high-end recording studio optimised for classical music.

Unique in its composition - the string quartet of two violins, viola and cello is usually either expanded with an extra viola or a second cello - here the double bass completes the ensemble. Thus, all five string sections of the orchestra are represented in the quintet. Consequentially, the PSB crosses the conventional limits of a chamber-music ensemble to advance at times into orchestral dimensions – as regularly attested to by critics: “...symphonic sonority...”, “...perfect example of sinewy and sensitive tonal poetry...”, “...overwhelming sonority from so few instruments...”.

Even though only relatively few original works exist for this formation, obliging the quintet to per-form many pieces in arrangements, the make-up of the ensemble was a conscious choice: “In our experience, the tonal range of the works gains tremendously: thus, we manage to achieve greater delicacy and freedom in the pieces than in their original scoring for string orchestra, without renouncing any of the body.”

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