Great Czech piano quartet performances come from Iowa, Ames, IA, to be precise, home of Iowa State University where the Ames Piano Quartet is the chamber music ensemble-in-residence. The group, one of the few full-time piano quartets in the world, has already released several excellent discs on Dorian: the mandatory couplings of quartets by Dvorák, Fauré, and Brahms, plus several ingenious couplings like a disc joining quartets to quartets by Strauss and Widor. This 2002 disc has one of the most fascinating programs yet, uniting three quartets by three different Czech composers: Josef Suk's A minor Quartet, Op. 1; Vitezslav Novák's C minor Quartet, Op. 7; and Bohuslav Martinu's Quartet written in 1942.
All three are three-movement works in the fast-slow-fast pattern, all three last a bit more than 20 minutes, and all three are interesting examples of specific aspects their composer's style. Suk's A minor Quartet, his 1891 graduation piece from Dvorák's composition class, is a passionate but well-crafted piece of ardent romanticism. Novák's C minor Quartet started life as a four-movement student work in 1894, which the composer completely rewrote in 1903, discarding three of the movements and replacing them with the two published outer movements. Martinu's Quartet was written while the composer was living in exile in Jamaica, Long Island, a refugee from war-torn Europe and shows his mature mastery at its height.
The Ames Piano Quartet performs every work with amazing strength and total dedication. With a tight but flexible ensemble, strong but agile technique, and big, passionate tone, the Ames has what these works need to succeed. Its Suk is fervent and sincere, its Novák bold but controlled, and its Martinu driven but lyrical. Though some listeners may find the string's tone a bit edgy, others will find this only adds intensity to the performances. Recorded in Martha-Ellen Tye Recital Hall in 2002, Dorian's digital sound here is big, close, and direct. It should also be noted that this appears to be the premiere recording of Novák's quartet.