Pavel Haas Quartet: Works by Prokofiev, Beethoven and Bartok, Playhouse, October 11, 2015. 

Photo: Mark Mushet

Photo: Mark Mushet

The young Pavel Haas Quartet is already a truly celebrated ensemble, winning Gramophone awards in 2012 for their Dvorak, 2014 for their Schubert, and now in 2015 for their Smetana.  Given that the turning point in their career was 2005 – when they won the Paolo Borciani String Quartet Competition in Italy -- the ensemble has been remarkably methodical in releasing new recordings, seeming to have to perfect each interpretation before they put it in stone.  There is clearly no sense of hurry; we have not even seen another Dvorak disc from them yet.

This was an outstanding concert, and unless this current trip across the Atlantic suddenly changed their corporate personality in some mysterious way, I thought there was a noticeable difference in their playing since I last saw them perform three years ago.   Still present of course is the ‘fineness’ of their detailing, their rhythmic acuity and tonal balance, and their ability bring real meaning to musical contrasts, the latter often due to leader Veronika Jarůšková’s immense talent for finding insightful accents and phrase shapes.   However, the big change now seems to be a greater weight and amplitude to their sound (almost explosive at points) and a greater sharpness and solidity in their expositional lines.  Combine this with their pristine timbres and voicings, and suddenly I am reminded, at least fleetingly, of the young Alban Berg Quartet.  I regard this as a big plus: before, I thought their flexibility and rhythmic buoyancy worked wonders in the Czech repertoire, but transferred less easily to other composers they played, such as Beethoven and Benjamin Britten, that required a firmer, more objective hand.  It was the sharper, firmer aspects of their expression, plus their restraint in using rhythmic buoyancy as a default setting, that really impressed me here.

While Prokofiev’s two quartets have never become regular currency with ensembles, the Pavel Haas have championed them before, recording a much admired Supraphon disc in 2010.  I have always felt that the second quartet was the easier to bring off cohesively within a folk idiom, while the first – played here -- remained an experimental, but often uncomfortably dense, conjunction of aggressive and lyrical ideas.  I think the ensemble’s adeptness at making quick dramatic contrasts actually helped the work avoid heaviness and turgidity. What was extremely impressive was the way the Pavel Haas dug into to the emotional complexity of the last two movements and exposed their core.  Certainly, there are many ideas juxtaposed therein, but the ensemble did not try to avoid, or soften, any of them.  Instrumental textures were uncompromisingly set in place, rhythms were sprung, and there was ample thrust when needed.  The results were so patient, sharply-etched and concentrated.  The last movement is a slow movement that the composer greatly loved.  I thought it moved with strong feeling towards its quiet and suspended ending; in fact, the ending was quite haunting, almost in the spirit of Shostakovich.  The Gramophone referred to their 2010 recording of this as ‘note perfect’; this was a lot more than that.  

The Op. 95 quartet of Beethoven was more striking still.  One often thinks of the work as a tightly-argued marvel of economy, but the Pavel Haas provided a much more dramatic performance, reveling in thrust and power but also digging into a wealth of romantic feelings. It simply gave new meaning to the quartet’s nickname ‘Serioso’.  I am sure many would find this performance simply too big and heaven-storming for daily consumption but I would not want to be without it.

The secret of this traversal was revealed in the opening movement: the combination of truly volcanic thrust and weight in the tightly-knit themes with the most yielding and tender expression in the lyrical ones.  I found this contrast most engrossing and, as the work progressed, it suddenly snuck up on me just how the ensemble was developing almost a saga of the greatest emotional reach.  So many different postures were hit in close proximity: a searing intensity, a relaxed suppleness of line, a sudden piquancy, an earthy unvarnished utterance.  Then almost out of the blue, the world would suddenly become very intimate in the hands of Veronika Jarůšková’s violin.   Yet there was a passion and a wildness always waiting in the shadows to surge forth at any unpredictable moment, not least in the finale.  I am not sure I have ever found this work ‘scary’, but there was something quite tragic about the whole presentation.  At the end, I just was left in amazement that any ensemble could think of doing the work this way, and actually bring it off with such conviction.

The Beethoven might have been enough for the evening, but we had awaiting, yes, Bartok’s 5th Quartet, not exactly a nightcap piece.  The Bartok is new repertoire for the group and it goes without saying that this work has proved a challenge for even the most seasoned veterans.  However, for quite different reasons, this went splendidly too.  While the Pavel Haas found admirable sinew and line of the opening and closing movements, mixing these with select moments of frenzy, I would not regard this as a particularly dramatic or physical performance.  It was the intellectual control and pacing in the three middle movements, aided by such thoughtful dynamics and rhythmic precision, which gave the work a remarkable feeling of cohesion and balance. The playing was so clean and well-defined, and each of the voices contributed their own rustic character on top of this.  I thought the Pavel Hass’ penetration of the ‘night music’ in the Adagio and elsewhere was thoroughly convincing while they brought out all the pungent Hungarian folk rhythms with dramatic purpose and without ever making them seem Czech. 

All told, this concert was quite an astounding experience.


© Geoffrey Newman 2015