Giorgio Koukl | 14 OCT 2020
The St. George Quintet (Liesbeth Baelus, first violin, Kaja Nowak, second violin, Diede Verpoest, viola, Wouter Vercruysse, cello and Bram Decroix, double bass) released their second CD, Bohemia Express, last year — two years after their 2017 British Legends, which was entirely dedicated to British composers.
For Bohemia Express, they have chosen a quite classical repertoire of Czech composers: Leoš Janáček’s Suite for Strings, written in 1877 and usually played by a string orchestra, Antonín Dvořák’s Quintet in G Major, Op. 77, written in 1875 and a short piece of Josef Suk, Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale “St. Wenceslas” Op. 35a, written in 1914.
The first thing which can be noted is the overall elegance and sound culture of this group. They have a fantastic range of dynamics and an absolute rhythmical precision. Every line seems to be recorded until perfection. Usually recordings takes place within a very restricted time frame; few productions allow themselves the luxury of four full recording days. Well, this is one of them.
The attention to detail and perfection goes beyond the music. For example, the artwork of this CD is designed in a lovely manner, giving us the first idea of what to expect: a group of musicians on their way to Prague, all stylized in a Marc Chagal style by Jan-Sebastiaan Degeyter of Gent, Belgium. This CD project’s packaging, choosing a quite unusual six-sided casing format, must forcedly renounce a classical booklet, so that the information given is rather laconic, which is a pity.
Nevertheless, with this CD also comes a short documentary film produced by Lars Konings, a lovely way to introduce the five young Belgian musicians on their way to understand the Czech culture in a sort of “road movie,” thus the title of the CD: Bohemia Express.
We can follow the group between Brno, Janáček’s city and Prague, singing folk tunes with casual passengers on train, visiting the places where the music was written, drinking wine with folk music groups, all this in a try to assimilate and understand the Czech particular idiom in music, a nice promo move, but probably without any practical result on the music. Even the musicians ask themselves: “What are we going for or looking after?”
Having watched this video, one would expect a completely new, wild and unorthodox approach to the scores. I have no doubt that this group would have been able to do so, but there is a sort of overcautious way of interpretation, which lets them slip into the already too often heard, “traditional” way, without really anything new.
Generally speaking their Janáček is far better than their Dvořák or Suk, but even there, there could have been more freedom to follow their musical instinct instead of listening too much to their teachers. What serves the St. George Quintet so well on their precedent disc is the cool British understatement while playing Kelly, Vaughan Williams, Elgar and Bliss, which here with the Czech music is of a little hindrance. Well, I do not pretend a gypsy Emir Kusturica style, but maybe less of already too-often-heard academic, dusty style, which so often comes out of the recordings of the past century. There is space for new ways of conceiving music and I am convinced these young musicians would have had all the musical, technical and interpretative skills to do so.
The recording, all made in the concert hall of the Brussels Conservatory in Belgium, has nice sonics, well balanced between the instruments, serves very well the wide range of dynamics, but sometimes includes a strange effect of bass notes, especially pizzicatos, which are far too dark and seem to come out of a cellar.
This is certainly a choice of the recording engineer, Henk Waegebaert, and could be accepted as such, but it probably will not be to everybody’s taste. Aside from this small regret, I can only highly recommend the Bohemia Express CD.
The St. George Quintet has all the necessary qualities to gain entry among the major groups and I am certain they have enough qualities do a lot of wonderful music in the future. ■