Prazak Quartet, Works by Haydn, Janacek and Dvorak, Vancouver Playhouse, March 10, 2015.

When I was young, I managed to see the Smetana Quartet play Dvorak.  It amazed me to see these four somewhat severe European gentlemen produce such a wonderful flow of romantic sentiment with such natural rhythmic point and energy, contours so sharp, utterance so direct.  The event left its mark: even now, I remain nostalgic about the ‘golden age’ of Czech chamber music (1950-1970), prizing my many recordings of the Smetana’s and other ensembles such as the Janacek Quartet (who played from memory), the original Vlach Quartet, and violinist Joseph Suk and the Suk Trio.  The reason why these performers remain so endearing is because they link so directly to the great 19th and early 20th C. Czech composers: first, through the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and, second through conductor Vaclav Talich.  Suk of course had a family tie to Dvorak himself.

This link has become increasingly tenuous as time has passed. The later Czech quartets that formed around 1970 were still taught by members of the great quartets, so that the distinctive tone quality and all the dimensions of bowing, phrasing and rhythmic accent could be passed on.  But these ensembles are seriously dwindling in number.  It seems that only the Prazak Quartet and the Panocha Quartet do extensive international touring anymore; the esteemed Talich Quartet still appears, but has largely fallen off the radar.  And it is not clear what the current state of the Kocian Quartet is; its leader, Pavel Hula, departed to join the Prazak Quartet in 2010. 

Every appearance by the Prazak Quartet does allow me a wonderful exercise in nostalgia.  Fortunately, they have been very regular visitors to Vancouver; for the record, appearing 14 times in the last 29 years. The authenticity of the Prazak’s sound and style undoubtedly comes from the fact that all but one of its members are original, and even the replacement first violinist is a celebrated artist from the same tradition.

When I originally heard this ensemble, I thought that it was probably closest in style to the early Dvorak Quartet -- robust, earthy, full of Czech accents, but also prone to being overenthusiastic and somewhat loose in ensemble and tempo.    With 60 or so recordings on Praga now under its belt, the group is of course far more disciplined with a stronger corporate sonority; it is one of the Czech Republic’s most esteemed ensembles.  They still maintain their earthy directness, distinctive voicing and their freshness, though I might add that their lyrical line is typically less broad than the classic groups.

Their Haydn Quartet, Op. 71, No. 1 was an absolute delight.  In the opening Allegro, the ensemble seemed to move directly to the heart of the music, nothing over-adorned, just faithful and true, full of rhythmic life.  The following Adagio was even better: their raw, sharp timbres combining in a natural expressive flow that was both subtle and emotionally rich.  The rhythmic push and pure zeal of the Finale was simply delicious. 

Leos Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 was the composer’s very last work and indisputably one of greatest 20th C. works for string quartet.  Titled “Intimate Letters”, it contains some of the most personal utterances that the composer ever wrote.  On the other hand, it has a variety of jagged experimental bowings, an abruptness, and a wonderfully passionate, dramatic side too.  I thought the Prazak Quartet did a remarkable job with the opening Andante, finding its different shades of longing but also achieving a stellar integration of its multi-layered lyrical themes. One approach to the following Adagio is to move slowly towards increased intimacy; the other is to keep the passion and feeling going longer.  Here the latter alternative was chosen, the Prazaks negotiating the movement with poise and colour, almost securing a sensuality in its many textures.  In fact, this seemed to symbolize their basic approach throughout.  Passionate drama also figured at the end of the next movement, and it was mainly raw earthy rhythms and dramatic force that created the superb unity of the final Allegro, uncovering much emotional volatility along the way. 

A very strong and exciting rendering, but I did find it romantically fulsome to the point where it made the work hint back more to Smetana’s earlier First String Quartet than look forward to something that is truly modern and path-breaking.  The recorded performances of the Janacek Quartet and, later, the Talich Quartet reveal just how intimate and enigmatic this work can be -- the startling string punctuations almost like voices ‘speaking’ to the listener.

Dvorak’s lovely Op. 51 Quartet is the greatest of his earlier quartets, superbly lyrical, directly expressive, and largely free from the composer’s earlier tendency to overwrite.  The benchmark performance for me has always been the early 1960s recording by the original Vlach Quartet, that has so much poise and radiant suspension of its lyrical flow, especially in the long opening Allegro.  The current performance was different, being faster and more tightly-knit in the first two movements and more analytic overall.  There was a stronger attempt to bring out harmonic relations, complex voicings, and the tightness of the rhythms.  Perhaps I did not feel the beauty, tenderness and sheer charm in the writing as much, but an interesting alternative nonetheless, gaining in cogency.  The following Dumka brought an interesting variety and expressive warmth to its imitative exchanges and the   following Romanza exhibited lovely restraint.  Both it and the last movement were for the most part splendidly done, the finale pushing forth with all the right energy and drive. 

All qualifications aside, this concert was a uniquely powerful Czech experience. I loved it and apparently so did everybody else.  We got a glimmer of the character, spirit and feeling of ‘old world’ chamber music: music making that comes forth like a fine wine stored in an old casket!  The engaging encore was Dvorak’s Waltz in D major, Op. 54


© Geoffrey Newman 2015