Vladimír Ríha

Mozart, Brahms: Clarinet Quintets

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The Smetana Quartet has long been a nationalist symbol in its Czech home, having been formed during the unlikely period of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and managing to endure after the war. It was quick to make a name for itself early on, notably for performances sans music and stands that resulted in tight-knit, highly communicative playing; this practice did not last, but the quartet continued in its prominent role in Czech musical society and produced many fine recordings. This Supraphon album featuring the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms, however, does not find the Smetanas at their best. The 1953 recording of the Mozart quintet is plagued by inferior sound quality, which the present remastering did not sufficiently ameliorate. The clarinet is extremely overpowering, while the strings sound as if they are in a completely different room. Sound quality in the Brahms quintet, recorded some 12 years later and in stereo, is slightly better but still unnecessarily favoring the already penetrating sound of the clarinet rather than producing a more even blend of the five equally important instruments. This album also finds the Smetana Quartet struggling with intonation, particularly when playing together with the clarinet. Cellist Antonin Kohout in particular has many glaring pitch problems. Despite the quartet's considerable historical impact, this recording is not a great choice for listeners simply looking for a solid, pleasing recording of these two staples of the chamber music repertoire.

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