Pražák and Zemlinsky String Quartets: Music of Dvorak, Schulhoff and Mendelssohn, Playhouse, January 29, 2019.


There is something wonderfully extravagant about having two international string quartets come together for a concert, especially if they are from the Czech Republic. The Czech quartet tradition has spawned a wonderful sequence of ensembles, from the legendary Janáček and Smetana Quartets in the immediate post-war era to groups like the Pavel Haas Quartet today. On this occasion, it was the long-standing Pražák Quartet (formed in 1972) holding hands with the younger Zemlinsky Quartet (formed in 1994). The Mendelssohn Octet was naturally on tap, an enticing prospect since many enthusiasts will remember that the Janáček and Smetana Quartets recorded one of the most scintillating versions ever. The current performance was not quite at this level, but it gave off a nice authentic energy. It was equally redeeming to hear the string sextets by Dvořák and Erwin Schulhoff. The latter is a real prize and, in many respects, was the highlight of the evening. The Zemlinsky Quartet was the core group for the sextets, joined by the violist and cellist from the Pražák.

Dvořák’s String Sextet is not the easiest work to start off with. While it weds the composer’s characteristic lyricism with an appealing rhythmic buoyancy, it still contains passages of uninspired rhetoric: naïve key changes and repetitive imitative sequences often mingle with its beauties. A performance typically must exude sufficient fluidity and charm that one forgets about these deficiencies and concentrates on the work’s radiant hues. A continuing source of pleasure in this performance was hearing the group’s wonderfully burnished corporate texture, the rustic pungency of its lower strings, and its sharp and knowing Czech accents. Yet I’m not sure it caught the musicians in full flower: the treatment still seemed more on the earnest and disciplined side and did not fully project the work’s easeful lyricism or tender melancholy. The best parts were the more energetic ones, notably in the Furiant and the Finale, where the ensemble’s rhythmic address was most impressive.

Inspiration climbed significantly in the Schulhoff Sextet (1924). Erwin Schulhoff’s music has received increased attention over the last few decades as part of the attempt to rediscover Jewish composers whose music was deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, and was often destroyed or lost. This is the collection of ‘Entartete Musik’ that also includes composers such as Pavel Haas, Ernst Krenek, Viktor Ullmann, Berthold Goldschmidt, and Szymon Laks: Schulhoff died in a concentration camp in 1942. Bold structural ingenuity typifies a lot of this music and it often portrays moments of crazed frenzy, fleeting nostalgia and, ultimately, a disembodied, futile world where time goes onwards but nothing actually moves very much. The two slow movements of this sextet convey the latter feeling most poignantly, even though the work was written almost two decades before the composer’s ultimate plight. Here the composer was reacting to his experiences in World War I, where he had been conscripted into the Austrian army.


Schulhoff’s opening Allegro risoluto moves forward with intensity and abruptness, while registering a clear debt to the chromatism of the early New Vienna School. Its fervour was finely caught in this performance. More compelling still was the brazen Burlesca, where all the percussive thrusts and accents, and irregular rhythms, were articulated with transparency and the strongest energy – sometimes almost a savagery. This is a beautifully written scherzo – innovative, sharply dramatic, yet totally cogent and arresting. There is a cinematic quality to both slow movements, but also a purity of utterance, and they are consistently very quiet and suspending. The Tranquillo is a particularly haunting movement with tremolos and a variety of special effects. A descending passage seems to ‘wail’ forth, and at times the ghost of Schoenberg is not far off. A deeply felt cello solo leads to a world which is threatening by virtue of its sheer absence of colour. The closing Molto Adagio is perhaps stranger still: objects seem to float by devoid of purpose or spirit, musically grounded on two alternating pedals. At the close, the almost imperceptible rhythmic figure that disappears into timelessness is breathtaking. Many composers have attempted to probe this underworld of emptiness with much less success than this, and there is absolutely nothing self-conscious about Schulhoff’s writing: it seems remarkably true. The ensemble’s concentration and care over dynamics – especially in the quietest moments – made for a very involving experience.

And on to the Mendelssohn, likely the most joyous and effervescent piece ever written by a 16- year-old and the honoured display piece for a collaboration of two string quartets. This performance had a nice rhythmic energy and continuity throughout. Jana Vonásková, who joined the Pražák ensemble as first violin in 2015 and is well known for her fine recordings with the Smetana Trio, led the two ensembles and coaxed fine point and a hardy strength in the execution. The long first movement seemed to get better as it progressed, with more obvious synergy in the playing and finding a real frisson by the end. The two middle movements were somewhat less compelling: the Andante seemed a bit too romantic and heavy for Mendelssohn (it needed more feeling of innocence) while the famous Scherzo might have been articulated more decisively. Nonetheless, the finale brought all the energy back, and barring a little scrappiness here and there, the performance built to its close with all the right sense of budding joy and elation. There can be few more fun movements to witness, with all the tunes and entrances visibly moving across the stage.

This was a most enjoyable concert. We have long cherished the visit of any Czech string quartet, but to have two – and a programme like this – was a very special occasion.

© Geoffrey Newman 2019