Sunday, 30 June 2013

A British take on Bohemian composition

I have written on the London String Quartet before for my website [admittedly not updated for a year or more because its a complete faff and much easier to post on a blog] I can't think I have ever seen this Dvořák Quartet re-issued so thought it needed an outing.

London String Quartet
John Pennington (first violin) Thomas W. Petre  (second violin)
Harry Waldo Warner (viola) Charles Warwick Evans, (cello)

Dvořák: Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, S. 116
Allegro ma non troppo
Molto vivace
Finale: Vivace ma non troppo

Columbia L2092-2094 
[WAX3124-1; WAX3125-1; WAX3126-1
WAX3127-1; WAX3128-1; WAX3128-2]
Recorded: Monday 21st November 1927

Link (FLAC files, 73 MB)

The leader of the London String Quartet was originally Albert Sammons then James Levy and by 1928for  this recording it was John Pennington. Pennington was born in Bournemouth in 1902 and by 11 was playing in Sir Dan Godfrey's symphony concerts - probably just as illegal then as now. He became a member of the LSO, Covent Garden Opera Orchestra, leader of he first Wireless Orchestra during 1923-24 and concert master of the San Francisco orchestra from 1934 when the Quartet was disbanded for a time. I have not been able to find a photograph of the line up at the time the recording was made. The viola player Harry Waldo Warner had to retire in 1929 due to ill heath so I have instead included a photograph with his wife at the foot of this post.

An excellent article by Tully Potter can be found in Autumn 2010 issue of Classical Recordings Quarterly [Very well worth subscribing to by the way] He calls the performance 'so-so' I shall drop him a line on this as he may not have heard the performance in goodish sound - there are a few pitch problems in the set too that have been corrected here.

The London String Quartet.
Top to bottom: Warwick Evans, cello; John Pennington, first violin;
William Primrose, viola; Thomas Petre, second violin.

The Gramophone contains the following review for June 1928  'This is as fine a performance as one expects it to be with this excellent ensemble. The recording, though faultless, is slightly on the thin side, a fact which makes me wonder all the more whether it was a very happy idea of Dvořák's to use these tunes as material for a romantic string quartet which - small wonder - has a good deal more to do with the land of the Czechs than with U.S.A. I honestly feel that the fruitiness of the negro-idioms is far more suitable in shows like "The Black Birds " and others than in the little string quartet, however well written it is.'

'Discus' in The Musical Times for June 1928 has a brisk review and  liked the performance 'Chamber Music recordings have a popular addition in Dvořák s 'Nigger' Quartet, played by the London String Quartet, who give a sensitive performance of this beautiful quartet.'

The unfortunate appellation of the 'N' word was quite universal at this period, as can be seen from the label illustrated above. This thankfully starts to die out by the 1940s when the more acceptable 'American' was substituted. Neither is correct as Dvořák never gave any title to the work.

Probably the performance was thought to sound too British without enough Bohemian vitality and edge in it, but having listened to it a few times I think it has a spirit all of its own. The set was issued by Columbia in May 1928 and withdrawn  probably around January 1933 when Columbia replaced it with a performance given by the Lener String Quartet.

The Columbia Supplement for May 1928 seems slightly unsure of the recording quality as they explain in their blurb that 'The ensemble is so perfect that the four  play like one instrument. The fact that the beautiful viola playing of Mr Waldo Warner stands out a little above the rest is entirely due to the prominent place that Dvořák gave this instrument. it does not stand out a moment longer than it should and thus shows the perfect artistry of the quartet. The recording is very rich, and the string tone is perfectly reproduced.'

I quite like old W.W. Corbett's description of the piece in his Cyclopedia of Chamber Music OUP 1929 'Dvořák spent eight months in the chaos of metropolitan life in a society and nation quite strange to him, in journalistic world both sensational and polemical, amid vociferous praise and celebrations given in his honour; then suddenly he found himself in the strangely quiet beauty of the the heart of America, surrounded by a circle of Czech agriculturalist, worthy farmers, lusty peasants, cheery priests, and kindly old wives, who listened with tears in their eyes to the old church music of their native Bohemian villages which the musician played for the them on the organ at mass. here then, is the origin of the fundamental mood which inspired this charming, quickly written (in three days) [sometime between 8-23 June 1893] but detailed work, touches the places with painful yearning, yet with smiling, idyllic sentiment prevailing throughout.'

Rose & Harry Waldo Warner
Going completely off at a tangent the Rose in the photograph was born Rose Amy Pettigrew and was to  marry Harry in 1896. Daughter of a cork cutter, and one of 13 children she became, from an early age, a model who sat for Rudolph Onslow Ford, William Holman Hunt, Frederic Leighton, John Everett Millais, Edward Poynter, Val Prinsep, John Singer Sargent, Walter Sickert,  Philip Wilson Steer and James McNeill Whistler.


  1. Your posts are always fascinating, including the tangent at the end,

  2. I agree, fascinating tangent! And I agree that this is an excellent, touching performance - I especially like the slow movement, which takes its time and matches your lovely bit of old Cobbett waxing lyrical... Thanks again! Nick

  3. Thanks Nick

    I see that the last side was take -2 maybe it was a squeeze to get that in as both side 5 & 6 are quite full and the pace is a tad fast - but there is no getting away from the fine balance and pace of their Lento - a heartfelt performance.


  4. Thanks for transferring & sharing this item, and also for the nice pictures! A lovely performance.

  5. Many thanks Satyr

    Glad you liked it


  6. Thank you for some very pleasant music! If anything, it puts to my mind American Indians or at least an Indian summer mood. I also enjoyed your aside at the end!

  7. fascinating. thank you very much for sharing your transfer. and the link is still working in 2020. -cheers, a.v.