This world premiere release of Czech composer Josef Bohuslav Foerster's complete string quartets, played by the Stamic Quartet, is perhaps the most valuable "find" of 2010.
Ranking equally with the quartets of Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak, both of whom the composer idolized, one can only wonder why it’s taken so long for these five works to appear on CD.
The Quartet No. 1, from 1888, is dedicated to Tchaikovsky and opens with a folksy melody anticipating the beginning of Dvorak’s American Quartet (which would come along five years later). The dance-like scherzo, dreamy adagio and concluding balladic allegro — where one can imagine Don Juan, guitar in hand, serenading his lady fair — make for a knockout piece.
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The three-movement second quartet is one of the greatest romantic chamber music discoveries of recent times. Harmonically adventurous and structurally sophisticated, it opens with a gorgeous two-part melody that undergoes a series of moody developmental transformations, while the mysterious conclusion foreshadows Arnold Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht.
The Quartet No. 3, a single movement work, is the most progressive of the lot. Dedicated to his wife, Foerster combines a tender theme, a lullaby and a nod to the Czech polka all in a compressed 15 minutes.
It would be another 30 years before Foerster would write his next string quartet. Thematically and harmonically dense, the fourth quartet is a work of great romantic intensity, requiring repeated listening for full appreciation. The fifth, subtitled "Vestec" after the village where it was written, was Foerster’s final opus. It has an appealing simplicity and directness often found in the last works of great composers.
The two-disc set is filled out with his all too brief string quintet, plus three occasional pieces featuring string quartet (one with harp) which remained unpublished when he died in 1951.
The Stamic Quartet owns these pieces, with performances that make a compelling case for music that deserves much wider attention.
Bob McQuiston revels in under-the-radar repertoire at his web site Classical Lost and Found.
Let us know your picks for some of the best overlooked classical releases of 2010 in the comments section.