Smetana Quartet – BBC Legends (Dovorak & Janacek) (2006)

FrontCover1.jpgThe Smetana Quartet (Czech: Smetanovo kvarteto) was a Czech string quartet that was in existence from 1945 to 1989.

The Smetana Quartet arose from the Quartet of the Czech Conservatory, which was founded in 1943 (during the Nazi occupation) in Prague by Antonín Kohout, the cellist. With Jaroslav Rybenský and Lubomír Kostecký as first and second violins, and Václav Neumann as violist, the group gave its first performance as the Smetana Quartet on 6 November 1945, at the Municipal Library in Prague. Neumann left to pursue conducting in 1947, at which point Rybenský went to the viola desk and Jiří Novák (who shared first violin desk with Josef Vlach, founder of the Vlach Quartet, under Vaclav Talich in the Czech Chamber Orchestra) came in as first violin.

By 1949 the group had official connections with the Czech Philharmonic. The first foreign tour was in 1949, to Poland, and the first recording was of a quartet by Bedřich Smetana in 1950. Rybenský was obliged to retire after ill health in 1952, and was replaced by Milan Škampa. The performers were appointed professors at the Academy of Musical Arts in 1967. Of their many recordings, those made at that time for German Electrola are considered particularly fine.

For many years this group, which has been called the finest Czech quartet of its time, played the Czech repertoire from memory, giving these works a special intensity and intimacy.


The Smetana Quartet made the third commercial digital recording ever made, Mozart’s K.421 and K.458, in Tokyo April 24-26, 1972. They rerecorded the same repertoire ten years later in Prague.

Antonín Kohout trained the Kocian Quartet (founded 1972) and the Martinů Quartet (1976), though the latter’s members had been pupils of Professor Viktor Moučka, cellist of the Vlach Quartet. (by wikipedia)


Some reviews are a pleasure to write and this is certainly one of them. The Smetana Quartet was formed in 1945 – the original personnel including conductor-to-be Václav Neumann as violist (until 1947) – with the last change in the Smetana’s line-up, until it disbanded in 1989, was in 1956, when Milan Škampa replaced Jaroslav Rybenský as the viola player. During the 1960s and 1970s I – like many others – picked up often ridiculously cheap LPs of the quartet in mainly Eastern European music. I came to admire the players’ unforced musicality, natural phrasing and rhythmic subtlety. This BBC Legends’ release features stereo recordings recorded from 1969 and 1975 – and the sound is very fine. There is a sense of both venues’ acoustic, a natural balance and very fine imaging and resolution. On the down side there are mild patches of what used to be called ‘wow and flutter’. But, unlike some of the Legends’ series, the sound does not get in the way of the music-making and the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience is virtually silent. In terms of technique the Smetana Quartet has occasional problems. Ensemble – by clinical modern standards – can slip, as can exactness of bowing and intonation, but these ‘lapses’ are few and far between.


But when the musicians glide into Dvořák’s Terzetto, the sweet tone is beautiful, the expression urbane and there is a sense of conversation between the players. In this sadly neglected four-movement work the tempo changes and phrasing are natural and a quiet sense of melancholy imbues every bar – irrespective of tempo marking. Janáček’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ – a great piece – opens with beautifully gradated dynamics that heighten the sense of French impressionism. The accelerandos in the Con moto second movement are seamlessly integrated, as they are in the finale, where the opening tempo is a genuine adagio that still moves inexorably forward. Indeed the whole performance captures every change of mood with integration. Dvořák’s masterly A flat Quartet is similarly outstanding, every tempo change is unforced and the rhythmic variation is brilliant. None of the tempos could be described as too leisurely. In the Molto vivace second movement there is a genuine sense of the dance and in the second section there is a disquieting sense of undulating emotion, and the Lento e molto cantabile third movement really does sing at a tempo that makes many other quartets sound self-indulgent. The finale has real high spirits and, as with the rest of the performance, it just sounds right – like any great performance you feel that this is the way the music should be played. So a wonderful CD, which captures a style of music-making that is – tragically – dying out, and an essential buy for all chamber music lovers. (by Rob Pennock)


Antonín Kohout (cello)
Lubomír Kostecký (2nd violin)
Jiří Novák (1st violin)
Milan Škampa (viola)



Antonin Dvorák: Terzetto for 2 violins & viola in C major, B. 148 (Op. 74):
01. Introduzione. Allegro ma non troppo – attacca 4.39
02. Larghetto 5.36
03. Scherzo. Vivace – Trio. Poco meno mosso 4.33
04. Tema con variazioni. Poco adagio – Molto allegro – Moderato – Moderato e risoluto – Molto allegro 5.55

Leos Janáček: String Quartet No. 1 (“Kreutzer Sonata”), JW 7/8:
05.  Adagio – Con moto – Vivo 3.54
06. Con moto – Energico e appassionato – Tempo 1 4.04
07. Con moto – Vivace – Andante – Tempo 1 3.39
08. Con moto – Tempo 2 – Adagio – Maestoso (Tempo 1) – Più mosso, feroce 5.18

Antonin Dvorák: String Quartet No. 14 in A flat major, B. 193 (Op. 105):
09. Adagio, ma non troppo – Allegro appassionato 8.23
10. Molto vivace 6.31
11. Lento e molto cantabile 7.40
12. Allegro, non tanto 10.03