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Czech chamber ensembles.

This year we mark the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Czech Quartet, an ensemble that represented a breakthrough in the history of Czech chamber music. Of course, chamber music has a much longer history and its roots can be found both in court cappella and in active music making in noble families. The whole 19th century was then characterised by "home" or "salon" music making. It is therefore true to say that alongside choirs, chamber music was the most natural way of making music. A relative long and far from obvious path, however, leads from this tradition to the emergence of genuinely professional groups playing the most difficult pieces at public concerts. And it was in this context that the Czech Quartet represented a breakthrough.

It was in the year 1891 that the professor at the Prague Conservatory, Hanus Wihan, put together a kind of elite ensemble of conservatory students. Here all the founding members of a group that were to be known a few years later came together. They were the violinists Karel Hoffman (1872-1936) and Josef Suk senior (1874-1935), the viola player Oskar Nedbal (1874-1930) and the cellist Otto Berger (1873-1897). On the 2nd of November 1891 they then appeared together, still under the heading of the Czech-German Union for Chamber Music. This was the predecessor of the Czech Society for Chamber Music, formed in 1894, which became as it were the axis of the domestic tradition of chamber music and is today one of the longest-lived still functioning Czech musical institutions. The group did not appear under the name Czech Quartet until 1892, and in the January of the following year they had a triumphal success in Vienna. Instead of just the originally planned one concert on the 19th of January they finally gave four, and in a city where there existed several established and professionally functioning string quartets ... And what is even more incredible is that most of the members of the quartet were not yet twenty years old. Another good sign was that even their Czech programme, especially Bedrich Smetana's String quartet no. 1 in E minor, was a success as well.

The quartet did not remain the same in membership up to its end in 1933. We should note that the place of the outstanding cellist Otto Berger, who died very young of lung disease, was taken by the father founder of the ensemble at the conservatory, Hanus Wihan (1855-1920), who was a generation older. Another change came in 1906, when Oskar Nedbal, who later devoted himself more to conducting and composing, was replaced by the viola player Jiri Herold (1875-1934), up to that time first violin of his own string quartet. The last major change came when Hanus Wihan fell ill and was succeeded in 1914 by the cellist Ladislav Zelenka (1881-1957), himself originally a member of the excellent Sevcik-Lhotsky Quartet.

We name the individual members here because each was an exceptional figure in the history of musical performance, and also because some ensembles active today have been named after them. In relation to the concerts of the Czech Quartet we should mention three features that made them so important an ensemble: first, dozens of concert tours of Europe; second, the systematic building up of repertoire; and third, inspiration for other Czech ensembles. As early as the years 1895-7 the Czech Quartet was giving concerts first in Russia and Italy, then in France, and then on tours in England, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Later they added very successful tours to Switzerland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey and also Spain and Portugal. The ensemble returned to all these countries repeatedly, each time with Czech and international repertoire. Before the First World War they travelled with major thematic cycles: a Beethoven Cycle, Dvorak Cycle, and cycle on the development of chamber music. Also important were the regular concerts given by the Czech Quartet under the aegis of the Czech Society for Chamber Music. In 1922 all the members became teachers at the Prague Conservatory; this was of great importance for the training of other musicians, but was also the reason why the next decade of the quartet's activity was not so dazzling as the pre-war era. Although by the end of its life the quartet was more a symbol than a modern ensemble, its preceding achievements are absolutely undeniable.


In the field of chamber orchestras--and of course in many other areas--the key role was played by the best Czech conductor ever, the principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic during the First Republic and the head of the National Theatre opera during the Second World War, Vaclav Talich. After the war when his bitter critic and enemy Zdenek Nejedly made it impossible for him to work in the opera or with orchestras, students at the conservatory founded the Czech Chamber Orchestra for him in 1945. The idea of devoting himself to subtle work with a smaller ensemble had in fact been maturing in Talich for some time before, and he soon achieved quite phenomenal success with the young players. Let us recall their performance at the Prague Spring in 1947 and the admiring words of the world-famous cellist Pierre Fournier, who declared that he had never encountered so good a chamber ensemble before anywhere. After the communist takeover in 1948 the authorities and above all the egregious Zdenek Nejedly banned Talich from all activities, the players naturally stood by him and the orchestra ceased to exist. But the impulse and the tradition lived on, and so the violinist and conductor Josef Vlach, himself one of Talich's pupils, revived the Czech Chamber Orchestra in 1957. The orchestra was later taken over by pupils of Josef Vlach, in the first rank Ondrej Kukal, and the ensemble has flourished under the same name to this day.

Talich was not the only symphonic conductor for whom conducting a chamber ensemble was of great importance. Here we should mention at least two ensembles that no longer exist today. The first was the Prague Chamber Soloists, directed in the mid-1960s by Vaclav Neumann, and the second, particularly remarkable, was the Chamber Harmony, with which Libor Pesek likewise gave concerts in the 1960s. The programmes of the latter group were trail-blazing, including new Czech music, what today are already classic works of 20th-century music, and works of classicism.

In the context of post-war history we must mention at least the four most important string quartets and two piano trios. Let us start with the longest lived quartet, the Smetana Quartet that was formed in 1945 and did not definitively end its concert activities until 1989. Most of the time it was composed of violinists Jiri Novak and Lubomir Kostecky, viola player Milan Skampa and cellist Antonin Kohout, but its founder members had included the violinist Jaroslav Rybensky, whose career was cut short by illness in 1955, and Vaclav Neumann, the conductor mentioned above, who played the viola in the quartet for the first two years. This is one of many instances of the way in which the Czech musical tradition is happily not sharply divided between chamber and symphonic music; it is frequent to encounter outstanding soloists who are also good chamber musicians and the best symphonic conductors know the value of experience with a chamber ensemble. Partly because of the stability of its membership the Smetana Quartet became a fixed point of reference in chamber music. Its broad-ranging discography covering all the basic works of chamber music can be considered truly representative in many respects. This quartet toured literally round the whole world and repeatedly returned to all the world's most important concert halls, but they also made very popular appearances in even the smaller towns of Czechoslovakia and represent a whole separate chapter in the history of the Czech chamber music. Their teaching activities have also had a major impact on Czech music, since practically all the best Czech quartets of the middle generation went through Prof. Antonin Kohout's class.

The Vlach Quartet, made up of the violinists Josef Vlach and Vaclav Snitil, the viola player Josef Kodousek and the cellist Josef Moucka, represents a much briefer, but still artistically unusually valuable chapter. Its members were all exceptional, distinctive performers with excellent technical skills, a feeling for style and the gift of lyrical expression. In the period of the ensemble's existence, 1950-1976, they brought an absolutely unique quality to performance of the quartets of Antonin Dvorak and Leos Janacek and practically the whole of Beethoven's quartet output, to mention only their most important feats.

The third internationally important ensemble of the second half of the 20th century was the Janacek Quartet, which was formed at the Brno Conservatory in 1947 and from 1955 consisted of Jiri Travnicek, Adolf Sykora, Jiri Kratochvil and Karel Krafka. Unlike the Smetana Quartet the Vlach and Janacek quartets handed down their names to another generation of players, and so ensembles with the names are still performing today. As the fourth on this very selective list let us mention the Prague Quartet (Kvarteto hlavniho mesta Prahy), founded in 1955 in association with the Prague FOK Symphony Orchestra and consisting of Bretislav Novotny, Miroslav Richter, Hubert Simacek and Zdenek Konicek; the ensemble later became independent of the orchestra. Like the others the Prague Quartet underwent changes of membership but in 2001, when it ceased to exist, it had almost three thousand performances and dozens of recordings to its name.

One particularly admirable example of the close relationship between solo and chamber play was, of course, the Suk Trio consisting of Josef Suk junior-violin, Josef Chuchro--cello and Jan Panenka--piano. (Later Jan Panenka's place was taken by the equally outstanding accompanist and chamber pianist Josef Hala.) Their recordings of the Dvorak and Beethoven trios still sound modern today and set standards by which others are judged. The trio first performed in 1951 and continued to give concerts for practically forty years. Another threesome of extraordinary musicians came together in the Smetana Trio, formed in the 1930s: the violinist Alexandr Plocek, the pianist Josef Palenicek and the cellist Frantisek Smetana. Their traditions were carried on by today's Smetana Trio, to which we shall return. Compared to quartets trios are much more meeting places for soloists and the members tend to change much more often. Thus for example we encounter the tradition of the Czech Trio, where the leading figure was once again the pianist Josef Palenicek and in its most famous period the violinist Alexandr Polcek or Ivan Straus and the cellist Milos Sadlo. The principle of soloists coming together is even more common among wind ensembles.

This has been just the shortest of accounts of how inseparable chamber music is from the Czech tradition of performance. It can even be said that in terms of international recognition and acclaim, it has generally been more prominent than many soloists and orchestras. And this is still true today. The central and the most demanding form of chamber music is the string quartet, which also requires the most stable configuration of performers, while with other ensembles we see a strong tendency for the musicians to be involved in other groups and formations at the same time. The music scene today confirms this picture--a group of renowned quartets or chamber orchestras, and to some extent trios, which moreover have distinguished traditions to build on, and beside them a large number of chamber ensembles of all types, origins and profiles, more or less permanent.

Ensembles specialising in the interpretation of music of earlier periods (such as Milan Munclinger's Ars revidiva, for example), represent a separate chapter, and one which requires separate treatment, as do ensembles specialising in contemporary music. We will return to this theme in some other Czech Music issue.


The Panocha Quartet

The Panocha Quartet has been in existence longer than any other still performing in the Czech Republic. In two years it will be celebrating its fortieth anniversary, and the same musicians have been playing in it from the very start: Jiri Panocha--1 st violin, Pavel Zejfart--2nd violin, Miroslav Sehnoutka--viola and Jaroslav Kulhan--cello. The quartet was founded in 1968 by students at the Prague Conservatory and its first major success was victory in the International String Quartet Competition in Prague in 1975. It has toured in almost all the countries of Europe and overseas, and won important awards: A Gold Medal in Bordeaux (1976) and in 1982 the Supraphon Golden Disc. In 1983 it won the Grand Prix du disque de l'Academie Charles Cros in Paris for its recording of Bohuslav Martinu's String Quartets nos. 4 and 6, but also went on to record his complete string quartets. Its complete recording of the String Quartets of Antonin Dvorak for Supraphon (over seven years), and the quartets of Zdenek Fibich and Bedrich Smetana, are also of great importance and exceptional musical value. Its harmonious, unusually warm and colourful sound is completely ideal for the Czech quartet tradition. It also regularly performs music by Joseph Haydn, the founding father of the string quartet. One special chapter in its history has been its long-term collaboration with the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff. They have not only played piano quartets and quintets with him but have regularly taken part in the festival that Schiff holds in Mondsee in Austria and have been members of his orchestra Capella Andrea Barca. A valuable Mozart recording came out of their collaboration with the pianist Rudolf Firkusny, which unfortunately ended prematurely with his death.

The Prazak Quartet

The Prazak Quartet is one of several top Czech ensembles better known abroad than at home. It was formed at the beginning of the 1970s at the conservatory by Vaclav Remes and Vlastimil Holek--violins, Josef Kluson--viola, Josef Prazak--cello and, as soon became apparent, these were four equally talented individuals with the same obsession with chamber music. The ensemble gained experience under teachers who in each case were members of the three best quartets that were then at the height of their fame: Viktor Moucka, member of the the Vlach Quartet, Bretislav Novotny, leader of the Prague Quartet and Antonin Kohout, member of the Smetana Quartet. The Prazak Quartet soon acquired a great reputation, taking first prize at competitions in Kromeriz and Evian in 1978 and a year later winning the Prague Spring Competition. In 1986 the cellist whose name the quartet bears had to give up his increasingly successful musical career for health reasons, and his place was taken by Michal Kanka, excellently trained and with great gifts as a soloist. The quartet continued on its successful path under its old name but with a new impetus. Its repertoire is admirably broad and contains all the great quartet works from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Dvorak to Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. The Prazak Quartet is without doubt one of the handful of ensembles that represent the absolute elite of Czech quartet performance. The media visibility of the Prazak Quartet has been heightened by ten years of collaboration with the French recording company Harmonia mundi (Praga Digitals)--which is also the case of the Guarneri Trio (see below). Its discography covers roughly twenty titles and almost forty pieces of music and shows not just breadth of repertoire, but a marvellous breadth of expressive power in performance. Its recording of Beethoven's Razumovsky Quartets, the first part of a complete edition of Beethoven's quartets, attracted a huge amount of attention.


The Wihan Quartet

Also distinctive and prominent is the Wihan Quartet: Leos Cepicky, Jan Schulmeister--violins, Jiri Zigmund--viola, Ales Kasprik--cello. It was formed in 1985 when its members were studying at the Music Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (HAMU) and it gave its concerts under the name HAMU Quartet. Within ten years it became one of the most sought-after quartets both at home and abroad. Bringing together four musicians who were equally technically skilled and very much on the same wavelength, it benefited from the start from excellent teaching in the person of Prof. Antonin Kohout. In the course of almost continuous travel punctuated by concerts at home, the ensemble toured Japan, for example, and appeared several times at London's Wigmore Hall, on one occasion for a concert broadcast by the BBC. After the stage of competitions the quartet embarked on the next stage of constant return to festivals with which it identifies in terms of sentiment and musical philosophy. It makes regular concert appearances not only in many countries of Europe but just as regularly in the USA, Japan and Australia--as do practically all the ensembles listed here. In addition to its large repertoire of quartet literature the ensemble enthusiastically engages in "crossover" music projects, such as appearances with the chanson singer Hana Hegerova and the star of musicals, Jan Ledecky, or paying tribute to the Beatles with a CD of the famous band's repertoire. The ensemble has made recordings for a number of domestic publishing companies (Bonton Music, Popron, Studio Matous, Arco diva). Recently it finished an outstanding complete recording of Beethoven Quartets for the Lotos company.


The Talich Quartet

The Talich Quartet has gone down in the history of Czech chamber music in two different phases marked by different membership. It was founded in 1964 by Jan Talich, the nephew of the famous Czech conductor Vaclav Talich. Initially consisting of P. Messiereur, J, Kvapil, J. Talich senior and E. Rattay, it soon won recognition for its brilliant interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven. Its recordings won a series of awards including the Diapasson d'Or, Grand Prix du Disque, Diapasson du siecle, and Supraphon Golden Disc. The ensemble became a leading performer of 20th-century music, for example making a recording of Bela Bartok's String Quartets for Supraphon. In the later 1990s the ensemble membership changed, and it now consists of Jan Talich--1 st violin (who is also the musical director of the Talich Chamber Orchestra), Petr Macecek--2nd violin, Vladimir Bukac--viola and Petr Prause--cello, who are continuing in the tradition of their predecessors. In addition to an extensive repertoire of Czech music and classical composers they often play the music of 20th-century composers such as Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Bela Bartok and Dmitri Shostakovich.



The Stamic Quartet

The Stamic Quartet was founded in 1985. Both the original violinists came from Havlickuv Brod, the birthplace of Jan Vaclav Stamic. The original leader Bohuslav Matousek, who later embarked on a solo career, was replaced by Jindrich Pazdera. The other members are the violinist Josef Kekula, the viola player Jan Peruska and the cellist Vladimir Leixner. They have a significant interest in Czech classicism, although the core of their repertoire is naturally the string quartets of Smetana, Dvorak and Martinu and a wide selection of works by world composers. In 1986 they won the quartet competition organised by the European Broadcasting Union in Salzburg and in the same year they gave a Salzburg concert that was transmitted to the member states of the EBU, Canada and the USA. Only two years later they won the Grand Prix du Disque de l'Academie Charles Cros Paris for their recording of the string quartets of A. Dvorak (F major, op. 96, G major, op. 106), and in 1991 the same prize for their recording of the complete string quartets of Bohuslav Martinu. At the 1997 Prague Spring Festival they performed the complete quartets of Alois Haba (see CM 3/2005) in three concerts. In 1998 their recording of the string quartets of Leos Janacek came first in a reader survey of recordings of these works in the British magazine Gramophone. One important milestone in their activities has been the founding of the EuroArt Prague "Stamic Quartet and Guests" festival. It is a regular event to which they invite leading world chamber ensembles and so promote contacts with the top international groups in the field. The Stamic Quartet is also the festival's resident ensemble and gains new ideas and impulses from regular performances with guest groups. From September 2005 to June 2006 what is now the sixth annual cycle of EuroArt Praha presented ensembles that included for example the fresh laureate of the ARD Munich Prize, Quatuor Ebene, the Kodaly Quartet and the Quarteto Casals. Actually appearing with the Stamic Quartet at joint concerts were the pianist Alex Tharaud, the vibraphone and marimba player Radek Krampl, the pianist Karel Ruzicka and the clarinettist Steph. Siegenthaler. The second series of the EuroArt Pragie Festival, which is called a Season of Laureates, presents young Czech chamber groups that have been successful in international competitions.


The Skampa Quartet

The Skampa Quartet was founded in 1988 at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts under the supervision of professors Antonin Kohout and Milana Skampa of the Smetana Quartet. Its members, however, continued their studies abroad, for example at the Scuola di Musica di Fiesole with Pietro Farulli from the Quartetto Italiano, with the pianist Malcolm Frager, and with members of the Amadeus Quartet and Walter Levin from the Quartet LaSalle. After winning a number of prizes at international competitions the ensemble won first prize at the prestigious global Charles Hennen Competition in Heerlen in the Netherlands. In 1995 it followed up this success with a very successful recital at London's Wigmore Hall, for which it won the Royal Philharmonic Society prize for Best Debut 1993. In October of the next year the quartet became the very first resident ensemble at the Wigmore Hall in history and in 1994-98 it gave dozens of successful concerts there. In addition to making concert tours throughout the world, in May 2001 the Skampa Quartet were appointed "guest professors of chamber music" at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where they continue to teach. They record for Supraphon (their eighth CD contains a modern and very highly rated performance of both Smetana's quartets). They have caused a sensation with their collaborative projects with the experimental folk violinist and singer Iva Bittova (recordings of Romany and Moravian folk music and jazz, and particularly their own arrangement of Janacek's Moravian folk poetry in songs recorded on CD for Supraphon). The quartet regularly takes part in broadcasts on BBC radio, and their "BBC Lunchtime Course" with Melvyn Tan was chosen as the first CD in the "Live from the Wigmore Hall" series of recordings on the BBC international label. The Skampa Quartet also appeared on the BBC programme "Classic Cafe", broadcast live from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as part of the celebrations for its reopening. In the words of one reviewer, "Everything they play, they play with a grasp that corresponds to the time when the work was written. Their approach to performance is based not just on knowledge of one piece or another, but on complete union with it. This is strikingly evident in the recording of the two Janacek quartets, their interpretation of which, as we can judge from comparison with dozens of others, is new in the sense of a kind of "return to Janacek". The quartet players have tracked down a number of Janacek's comments from letters and notes, and interrogated as far as possible all the available sources, including recorded verbal statements about the composer's idea of the content of the work or its performance. A concert programme based on these "journeys of exploration" which they present under the title Janacek and his Moravian roots, is worth mentioning in this context." Their discography also includes quartets by Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms.


The New Vlach Quartet

The New Vlach Quartet (The Vlach Quartet Prague) continues and identifies primarily with the musical legacy of the famous violinist, conductor and teacher Josef Vlach, leader of the Vlach Quartet. This exceptional musician presided over the birth of the New Vlach Quartet and had a decisive influence on its musical development. The quartet was founded in 1982 and consisted then, as it did until recently, of Jana Vlachova--1 st violin, Karel Stadtherr--2nd violin, Petr Verner--viola and Mikael Ericsson--cello. In 2006 P. Verner was succeeded by Georg Haag. Just a year later after its formation the quartet won the prize for the best performance of a contemporary piece at the competition in Kromeriz. In 1985 it then achieved another major success with a prize and laureate's title at the international string quartet competition in Portsmouth in England. In 1988 the quartet was invited by the Hindemith Foundation to Switzerland to take part in international master courses led by the celebrated Melos Quartet. Four years later (1992) it had the chance to discuss and develop its conception particularly of German classics at master classes with outstanding professors--F. Beyer (Munich), E. Feltz (Berlin) and Chr. Poppen (Detmold). In 1995 the quartet was chosen to record the complete chamber works of A. Dvorak on 15 CDs for the label NAXOS. In 1997-1999 the Vlach Quartet was the resident Salamanca-Hall ensemble in Gif in Japan and in 2000 it won the prestigious German critics' "Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik" for its recording of the double album Esquisses Hebraiques with the distinguished clarinettist Dieter Klocker. All the members of the New Vlach Quartet are also active soloists and in addition to their main activity in the quartet form the core of the Czech Chamber Orchestra (see below).


The Kubin Quartet

The remarkable and distinctive tradition of Moravian chamber ensembles, which started with the Moravian Quartet and continued particularly with the above mentioned Janacek Quartet, has found a worthy heir in the form of the Ostrava Kubin Quartet: Ludek Cap, Jan Niederle--violin, Pavel Vitek--viola, Jiri Zednicek--cello, which was formed in 1972 when its members were studying at the Janacek Academy of Performing Arts (JAMU) in Brno. Their teacher was Adolf Sykora, a member of the Janacek Quartet. After the usual stage of participation in various competitions, the quartet was deservedly given the opportunity to appear in major concert halls in most European countries. They then made Ostrava their base and decided to promote the chamber works of the composer associated with this region, Rudolf Kubin and to take his name. The quartet has given concerts all over Europe and presented the full range of quartet repertoire in its programmes. Great credit must go to an ensemble that for three decades has formed awareness of chamber music in one region and so carried the torch of continuity for more than one generation of listeners. Its discography includes an exemplary recording of the quartets of Leos Janacek and also Vitezslav Novak's String Quartet in D major op. 35, and the string quartets of C. A. Nielsen and K. Ditters.


The Kapralova Quartet

The only Czech string quartet made up entirely of women was founded in 1995 initially with the name Venus Quartet (Rita Cepurcenko, Simona Hurnikova--violins, Svetlana Jahodova--viola, Margit Klepacova--cello). The quartet differs markedly from the usual pattern in having been formed not while its members were studying but roughly ten years later, when they were already mature performers in their thirties. After two years working together the quartet travelled to a festival in Israel, then appeared in Paris and subsequently made a concert tour of Spain. In 2001 the ensemble won 3rd Prize when they entered a recording in a competition organised by Radio de France and the success substantially increased their fame and popularity. As a result, the Vitezslava Kapralova Society based in Ontario in Canada, approached the Venus Quartet and suggested that the all-female ensemble change its name to that of the world famous Czech woman composer. If we want to characterise what is distinctive about the music of the Kapralova Quartet, however, it is certainly not simply that it is a female quartet. The strong profile of quartet leader Rita Cepurcenko, the first woman to be concert master of the FOK Prague Symphony Orchestra, sets the tone, artistic standard and emotional quality of the whole group. Abroad the quartet records for FCE Lucemburg, and at home for the Czech companies Arcodiva and Music Vars.


The Pavel Haas Quartet

Consists of the violinists Veronika Jaruskova and Katerina Gemrotova, the viola player Pavel Nikl and the cellist Peter Jarusek. They are laureates of the Prague Spring Competition 2005 and winners of the Premio Paolo Borciani. V. Jaruskova and Peter Jarusek studied in Bratislava and in 1995 moved to the Prague Academy of Performing Arts, where they completed their training. Peter Jarusek played for five years in the internationally successful Skampa Quartet, while in 2002 Veronika Jaruskova founded the Pavel Haas Quartet. The Pavel Haas Quartet, named after the outstanding composer and pupil of Leos Janacek, has existed with the same members since 2004. Since its founding it has been invited to the prestigious Academia di Musica della Quartetto in Florence and in 2003 it also appeared in London's Wigmore Hall with the Skampa Quartet playing Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's Octet op. 20. It won the prestigious Rimbotti Prize at the competition in Fiesole by Florence, part of the prize being an important concert in the Teatro della Pergolla. In April last year, quite soon after the competition, the quartet used an opportunity provided by the ProQuartet study programme to start working with Walter Levin, a member of the LaSalle Quartet. Together with the Bemewitz and Zemlinsky Quartet and with other young ensembles they then took part in performance of all the Beethoven quartets in Basle and Milan under Walter Levin's direction. (See also CM 4/2005)

The Bennewitz Quartet

The Bennewitz Quartet was founded in Prague in 1998 and its members are top instrumentalists of the upcoming generation. It consists of Jiri Nemecek, Stepan Jezek--violins, Jiri Pinkas--viola and Stepan Dolezal--cello and after studying at Prague's Academy of Performing Arts they have gained valuable experience at master courses and a number of prizes at international competitions. The quartet has the honour to bear the name of the important Czech teacher and violinist Antonin Bennewitz, who was the first director of the Prague Conservatory. His teaching legacy is one of the corner stones of the Czech school of violin playing. In 1999 the Bennewitz Quartet took part in the international Beethoven's Hradec competition in Hradec nad Moravici, where it won 2nd Prize. In December of the same year the young performers attended master classes led by Mstislav Rostropovich. They have also taken part in many international master courses in Reichenau in Austria, studying under members of world-famous quartets. They concluded their studies with a period in Spain in the years 2002-2004 with Reiner Schmidt, a member of the Hagen Quartet. They have also participated in the courses directed by Walter Levin, a member of the LaSalle Quartet in Basle. They were finalists of the ARD Munich competition in 2004 and won the competition in Osaka in 2005.



The Zemlinsky Quartet

This ensemble is one of the youngest successful Czech quartets. The Zemlinsky Quartet (previously performing as the Penguin Quartet) consists of Frantisek Soucek, Petr Strizek--violins, Petr Holman--viola and Vladimir Fortin--cello, and since it was formed in 1994 it has been carrying forward the rich tradition of the Czech quartet school. It won 3rd Prize and the Prize of the Public at the international string quartet competition in London (2006) and is a laureate of the Prague Spring international string quartet competition (2005). During their studies at the Prague Conservatory and later at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, the ensemble was taught by members of renowned Czech chamber groups--the Prague Quartet and the Talich, Kocian and Prazak Quartets. It has also taken part in master courses both at home and abroad. Current consultants to the quartet include the Kocian Quartet's cellist V. Bernasek and the Prazak Quartet's viola player J. Kluson. Currently the quartet is studying with the leader of the LaSalle Quartet, W. Levin, at the Musikakademie Basel (Switzerland) where next year the members of the ensemble will also be working as his assistants.


The Guarneri Trio

The Guarneri Trio Prague is composed of three internationally recognised players: Ivan Klansky--piano, Cenek Pavlik--violin, Marek Jerie--cello. Formed in 1986, it is now without doubt one of our top ensembles and has a very wide repertoire, although it inclines more to Romantic than to more modern music and includes works by Antonin Dvorak and Dmitri Shostakovich. All three of the trios by Ludwig van Beethoven and the trios of Franz Schubert are part of the core repertoire, and also Smetana, Martinu, Suk and Lubos Fiser. They have made some milestone recordings for Supraphon, including a complete set of the trios of Beethoven and Shostakovich for the French label Praga. As is usual with outstanding piano trios, all the players also have solo careers. The marvellous sound of the ensemble is linked to its name: C. Pavlik plays an instrument made by Guarneri del Gesu from Luigi Tarisio's collection and M. Jerie plays a cello made by Andrea Guarneri in 1684. The pianist Ivan Klansky, considers solo and chamber play to be "the ideal combination": "You learn to think in different dimensions and colours. What is more I then master the easier parts of chamber music fast and to a good standard. The technical and musical difficulty of Chopin concerts and Prokofiev sonatas has prepared me so well that I don't have any problems with Dvorak's Dumkas or Smetana's piano trio. Today the ratio of chamber music to solo performance in my case is about seven to three."


The Smetana Trio

The predecessor of today's Smetana Trio (Jana Vonaskova-Novakova--violin, Jan Palenicek--cello, Jitka Cechova--piano) was the famous trio of the same name in the 1930s, which was renamed the Czech Trio in 1945 and consisted of the pianist Josef Palenicek, the violinist Alexandr Plocek and the cellist Frantisek Smetana. After Smetana's emigration he was replaced in the ensemble by Milos Sadlo. Their models of the time were no less than the ensemble of great names Cortot-Thibaud-Casals. In 1992 the pianist's son Jan Palenicek, after years of playing in the Ars Trio (renamed the Czech Trio after the death of Josef Palenicek in 1992), founded a new trio that took over the title Smetana Trio from the hands of former members of the original ensemble, Prof. Vaclav Snitil, Stanislav Apolin and Josef Hala. Musical education in Czech schools supplemented by studies abroad has been a typical feature of the artistic growth of the ensemble. On the model of the former Smetana Trio, they conceive their concerts as combinations of trio and solo pieces. Jana Vonaskova-Novakova studied at the Prague Conservatory with Jindrich Pazdera and in March 2000 won the Talent of the Year competition carrying the prize of a year's study at the Royal College of Music in London. She then won an Orpheus Scholarship, which allowed her to continue studying under Felix Andrievsky. She took part in master courses given by Robert Szreder, Sherban Lupu and Joshuy Epstein. In 2000 she emerged the absolute winner at the Lublin international competition for young violinists (2000) and a year later she was awarded a European Prize in Strasburg. She has been a member of the Smetana Trio since 2003. Jitka Cechova graduated from the classes led by Jan Novotny and Petr Toperczer, and continued with postgraduate studies in Paris under Eugen Indjic and Vitali Berzon in Freiburg, as well as master courses with Rudolf Kehrer, Eugen Indjic and Lazar Berman. Jan Palenicek was trained under Sasi Vectomov and Milos Sadl, and his musical development was then enhanced by contact with Paul Tortellier and in chamber music with Josef Vlach. Today in addition to playing in the trio he teaches at the conservatory and at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Among Smetana Trio's many CDs for different recording companies we should at least mention his most recent Supraphon CD of works by B. Smetana, J. Suk and V. Novak (2005), which won prestigious awards from the French magazines Diapason and Le Monde de la musique and which the British BBC Music Magazine rated best recording of the month for August 2005 in the field of chamber music. This year he won this British magazine's second prize for Dvorak's trios recording.


The Czech Clarinet Quartet

The Czech Clarinet Quartet is a remarkable example of a completely original ensemble that is breaking down barriers between genres and styles while at the same time ably performing the established repertoire of classical music of all the principal stylistic periods. Bass clarinettist and tenor saxophonist Petr Valasek has exceptional improvisational and multi-instrumental gifts that have led him to work mainly with jazz musicians. He is joined by the clarinettist Vojtech Nydl, who is a member of the Prague Chamber Philharmonic and the Afflatus Wind Quintet (see below), Ludek Boura who is a member of the orchestra of the State Opera in Prague who plays clarinet and basset-horn, and Jindrich Pavlis, clarinettist of the Prague Chamber Philharmonic. The members of the ensemble often stress that in the music of recent years, genre, ethnic and psychological boundaries no longer apply, and that the musicians who earlier combined folk music, jazz, and rock were showing the way forward. The members of the Czech Clarinet Quartet are musicians of this kind. The group consists of three clarinets and bass clarinet, with an E-flat clarinet or Mozartian basset-horn used in some pieces. They have developed a repertoire chosen from the widest possible range of epochs and styles (from the Renaissance to Jazz and modern music) which they arrange for their instruments themselves. The players' perceptiveness, excellent technique and feeling gives them lightness and ease in jazz moods, urgency and depth in classical parts, and a spiritualised and ethereal quality in medieval Jewish songs. Their own compositions and the premieres of works by contemporary composers give their repertoire another dimension. Some of their programmes have also involved collaboration with other top Czech performers (they recorded the CD "Tenerife Blues" with the jazz singer Jana Koubkova). It is worth mentioning their rare capacity for improvisation even in treatment of the classics, showing the influence of jazz and recently exploration of the potential of electronics applied to classical music. The Czech Clarinet Quartet is an original, lively and successful ensemble, as is clear from the invitations that they receive from important festivals. The instrumental piece Orlik from their CD Ozveny z kamene [Echoes of Stone] was the winner at the International Songwriting Competition, organised from Nashville in the USA.

The Czech Chamber Orchestra

The Czech Chamber Orchestra adopted the name of the ensemble founded by Vaclav Talich which existed in the years 1946-1948 (see above). Josef Vlach, the first violin in the orchestra, Talich's pupil and colleague and leader and founder of the Vlach Quartet, took up Talich's idea again after ten years, and in 1957 became the teacher and director of the new orchestra. As teacher, violinist and conductor, Josef Vlach trained generations of young musicians who were to become performers in leading Czech orchestras and chamber ensembles and to carry forward his and Vaclav Talich's musical ideals. The musical director of the Czech Chamber Orchestra, Jana Vlachova and its conductor Ondrej Kukal base their work on the belief that the chamber orchestra should work on the same principles as the string quartet. In 2002 the CCO (CKO) started to work with the German conductor Andreas Weiser as well, and it was with Weiser that it made a successful trip to Luxemburg where it collaborated with the "Theatre mimo magique" (France) on a work by the contemporary composer Phil Glass, presented at the Prague Spring 2004, at the festival in Saint Etienne and on other occasions. In the 2004-2005 season the orchestra accepted a generous offer from the management of the Czech Philharmonic and presented 4 concerts as the core of the Philharmonic Chamber Music Subscription series. The orchestra has a wide repertoire from Baroque and Classicist pieces to contemporary music. The Czech Chamber Orchestra works closely with the Jan Neruda High School in Prague, accompany graduates of its music classes at school concerts and support young musicians starting out on their careers.

The Prague Chamber Orchestra without Conductor

As the name suggests the orchestra is distinctive for frequently performing without a conductor. It is an experience that creates a very different kind of sympathy and solidarity among the players, with each relating not to a conductor's baton but to the ensemble as a whole. They also play pieces for larger ensembles without a conductor, including high classical music and 20th-century music. The PCO (PKO) was formed on the initiative of players from the first benches of the Czechoslovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Prague at the end of the 1950s (it has been an independent ensemble since 1965) with the aim of concentrating specifically on older music, which requires a smaller ensemble. Repertoire possibilities for this kind of chamber orchestra open up mainly in the music of Classicism (Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven), but extend back into the epoch of the High Baroque (Bach, Handel, Vivaldi), and forward into Early Romanticism (Mendelssohn, Schubert) as well as being abundant in 20th-century music (Britten, Honegger, Prokofiev, Stravinsky). The music of the early Czech masters, of course, represents a whole chapter in itself, including such composers as Michna, Zelenka, Stamic, Benda, Dusek, Myslivecek, Vanhal, Kozeluh, Vranicky, Rejcha, Jirovec and Vorisek. Over the fifty years of its life so far the orchestra has recorded innumerable titles for Supraphon, Denon, BMG, Decca, Telarc and other labels and many of its records have won important awards. For many soloists, playing with the PKO provides a tempting opportunity not just to perform their own part but to try the experience of leading the orchestra. This method of work, entirely commonplace in the past, does not appeal to every soloist, however, and in these cases the task of co-ordinating the orchestra is taken by the concert master. In the PKO the concert master has a key role as the musical leader who gives the play of the whole ensemble its final form. Currently the PCO is led by concert master Antonin Hradil.

The Talich Chamber Orchestra

The Talich Chamber Orchestra is a strikingly young ensemble which was formed in 1992 on the initiative of the violinist Jan Talich junior, great-nephew of the legendary Czech conductor Vaclav Talich. While originally a violinist, he has devoted a large part of his professional career to conducting an orchestra that consists of successful graduates of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and laureates of many competitions at home and abroad. Today the Talich Chamber Orchestra ranks among top chamber ensembles on the international scene. This is partly thanks to work with leading conductors such as Sir Charles Mackerras. The TCO (TKO) also performs with our best soloists and with major soloists from abroad like Shlomo Mintz (violin) or Michel Lethiec (clarinet). It has recorded CDs for Czech and foreign companies (including French EMI Records) and is currently engaged in its own CD projects. In the Czech Republic its recordings include a CD collection containing works from the Baroque to the 20th century, from Bach's Brandenburg Concertos to Strauss's Metamorphoses and Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. Its concert season combines older and contemporary pieces in a well thought out manner. For the 250th anniversary of the birth of W.A. Mozart the TCO recorded a new CD of pieces for violin and orchestra, with Jan Talich taking the solo part.


Virtuosi di Praga

The Virtuosi di Praga Chamber Orchestra was founded by the violinist and conductor Oldrich Vlcek in 1990 and soon became a top ensemble on the international scene. The originally small group developed into a body that has been the partner of stars like Placido Domingo, Igor Oistrakh, Jose Cura and Mstislav Rostropovich. The orchestra has a wide-ranging repertoire from Bach and Vivaldi through Vejvanovsky, Myslivecek, Mozart, Haydn, Rossini, and Beethoven right up to the music of the 20th century. It often performs with leading Czech choirs (The Prague Philharmonic and Prague Chamber Choir), and has presented great oratorio works such as Haydn's The Creation, Handel's Messiah or Acis and Galatea, Bach's Mass in B minor or the St. John Passion under the baton of Petr Schreier. The orchestra has recorded more than 170 CDs for a wide range of labels including Supraphon, Orfeo, Discover, Claves and Koch International. It is the holder of two Supraphon platinum discs for most successful classical music recording of the 1990s and gold discs from Discover, Supraphon and Lupulus. Virtuosi di Praga is the resident orchestra at the Pontes International Music Festival.

Chamber Ensembles Connected with the Czech Philharmonic

The large number of ensembles that have been formed from members of the Czech Philharmonic provides a good example of the way in which chamber and orchestral play naturally complement each other. Something similar can be observed with other orchestras, since like music schools the orchestra is the most natural place for the birth of these ensembles even if their activities are at the same time limited by players' obligations to the orchestra. If we look, for example, at a recent publication to mark the 110th anniversary of the Czech Philharmonic (Yvetta Kolackova et al., The Czech Philharmonic 100 plus 10), we find that many of the first instrumentalists are recorded as members of more than one chamber group as well.

The concert master Bohumil Kotmel was a member of the ensembles Czech Chamber Soloists, the Bohuslav Martinu Piano Quartet, Pro arte antiqua and the Sextet of Czech Philharmonics. The second concert master of the CP Miroslav Vilimec limits himself "just" to violin repertoire with piano accompaniment, with his brother Vladislav Vilimec as accompanist. The notable Duo di basso consists of the first CP cellist Frantisek Host and the first double-bass player Jiri Hudec. In 2004 the CP cello group followed the example of other major international orchestras and formed the independent ensemble Virtuosi di basso, for which there is also an extensive repertoire. The viola player Karel Spelina was an outstanding chamber musician as is the current first viola of the CP Jaroslav Pondelicek. The orchestra is also fertile ground for the formation of duos of different instruments; let us mention for example the popular combination of harp and flute and the Duo Bouskova--Novotny or Englichova--Machat (although Englichova is not a member of the CP).

The activities of wind players in chamber groups are even more conspicuous and have a long tradition in such groups as the Czech Philharmonic Wind Quintet and Wind Octet, and also the Czech Nonet, the Academic Wind Quintet, the Prague Wind Quintet, the Czech Philharmonic Harmony, the Czech Wind Harmony, the Harmony Rudolfinum, Ars instrumentalis pragensis, the Collegium musicum pragense, the Prague French Horn Trio, the Czech Horn Quintet and others. Here we also find ensembles devoted to early music, like the Prague Baroque Ensemble and Ars revidiva. Among wind groups whose members are also orchestral players, two have a quite outstanding reputation: In modo camerale and above all the Afflatus Quintet. These are a little different in the sense that they were formed before their members joined the orchestra.

The Afflatus Quintet is the only Czech ensemble ever to have won the prestigious ARD Competition in Munich (September 1997). Statistics show the large number of successful concerts given by the Afflatus Quintet at home and abroad (Berlin, Stuttgart, Munich, Hamburg, Brussels, Paris, Japan, international festivals in Finland and Switzerland etc.) A number of CDs already show the breadth of its repertoire: Taffanel, Milhaud, Ibert, Francaix, but also Rejcha, Foerster, Dvorak, and Haydn, Hindemith, Blumer, Klughardt or Maurice Ravel--Revolution 21 as well as W.A. Mozart of course. Taking just a brief view of its listed repertoire we find more than fifty pieces by thirty composers, starting with Mozart and ending, for example, with Jan Klusak (see CM 4/2004) or Ligeti. Contemporary composers are even writing pieces directly for the Afflatus Quintet. All its members (flautist Roman Novotny--CP, oboist Jana Brozkova--CP, clarinettist Vojtech Nydl--Prague Chamber Philharmonic, bassoonist Ondrej Roskovec--CP, and horn player Radek Baborak--Berliner Philharmoniker) are united in the view that playing in the quintet is very difficult compared not only to play the orchestra, but also to play in other chamber groups, but it is precisely the challenge that appeals to them. All of them see chamber play as a welcome complement and indeed opposite pole to orchestral play.



In modo camerale was formed when its members were still studying at the Prague Conservatory and in 1984 the ensemble won its first laurels at the Concertino Praga competition for young musicians. It collaborated successfully first with the pianist Tomas Visek, and subsequently Daniel Wiesner. It consists of the oboist Jana Brozkova, solo oboe of the CP and also a member of the Afflatus Quintet, the clarinettist Ludmila Peterkova, who is also engaged on a solo career, and the CP bassoonist Jaroslav Kubita. Their recordings of French music and of the chamber works of Bohuslav Martinu, which won them an award from the French Diapason magazine, are particularly remarkable. They are laureates of the competition in Osaka and hold the prize of the Czech Society for Chamber music, among other awards.

It will be clear that this article is not intended to offer an exhaustive list, but simply to give readers an idea of the breadth and diversity of the Czech chamber music scene today. There are many other ensembles of high quality besides those that have been described above. Among piano trios, for example, we might mention the Prague Trio or the Bohemia Trio, and among the younger generation the remarkable Trio Concertino or ArteMiss Trio, as well as trios consisting of another instruments such as the Belle Epoque with flute, cello and piano. Among string quartets we might mention the Martinu Quartet, the Dolezal Quartet, the Kocian Quartet, the M. Nostiz Quartet, the Apollon Quartet, the Herold Quartet or Kubelik Quartet or the continuing tradition of the Janacek Quartet and the Moravian Quartet with entirely different musicians. In the case of wind instruments we shall find other less usual instrumental combinations: the Czech Saxophone Quartet or the Czech Horn Quartet, the Brno Brass Band and so on and so forth. We could of course continue with many other examples. As well as a great tradition, which to some extent still remains to be mapped, Czech chamber music has a tremendously interesting and colorful present and much can be expected of it in the future.

compiled by JINDRICH BALEK
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Title Annotation:Czech Quartet
Author:Balek, Jindrich
Publication:Czech Music
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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