The Strad Issue: January 2007
Musicians: Ensemble Explorations, Frank Braley (piano/harmonium)
Dvo?ák’s Piano Quintet contains music of many personalities, and Ensemble Explorations is unfailingly responsive to all of them. In the second-movement Dumka, the contrasting sections are clearly delineated, the dances separated by double bar-lines and occasional changes of tempo, including the – surely unique – Vivace (quasi l’istesso tempo). Here the players are on great form, vigorous, warm, wistful and seductive by turns. Elsewhere the sometimes liberal application of rubato can threaten to gild the lily. The first movement is played at two different speeds, one for the lovely opening melody and its recurrences, and a faster one for the vigorous stuff in between. The Scherzo clips along famously and the finale is full of infectious high spirits. But there is a feeling sometimes of points being made, of a self-conscious reassessment of a familiar work that leads occasionally to mannered playing and highly inflected phrasing. Still, there is no doubting the depth of feeling and thought that has gone into the performance, and the playing is superb.
The pianist Frank Braley plays an 1874 Steinway, which balances nicely with the strings, and sounds a more natural and equal partner somehow than today’s booming giants tend to do (the recorded sound generally is close and clear, but errs on the wiry side). The Five Bagatelles for two violins, cello and harmonium are a joy, the playing full of unforced colour, dance and energy. In these folk-like works Dvo?ák is enjoying himself, and Ensemble Explorations is clearly doing so as well.