Pavel Haas Quartet, Music of Britten, Janacek and Beethoven, Playhouse, November 6, 2012

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After their concert of two seasons ago, we were sufficiently enchanted by the young and brilliant Pavel Haas Quartet that we could hardly wait to have them back again.  In the previous concert, this Prague-based ensemble gave us a ravishing Dvorak ‘American’ Quartet, plus quartets by Debussy and Pavel Haas himself.   It turned out that their recording of the Dvorak was to win the Gramophone ‘Record of the Year’ award (Supraphon 4038-2), emphatically confirming the quality of what we had seen.  Unlike many young string quartets, this is an ensemble that can probe deep inner emotions with the quietist playing yet blend this with the most precise detailing and strong rhythmic attack and energy. 

The gem on this occasion was the group’s performance of String Quartet No. 1 (1923) of another great Czech composer, Leos Janacek.  This is a work of great feeling and many performances have treated this work fairly aggressively; its passion residing very close to the surface.  It can be a bit unremitting sometimes and the Pavel Haas Quartet really re-thought this work.  By finding a quiet, haunting, but unmistakably Czech, melancholy from the opening and cutting this with passionate attack only selectively, they produced a greater balance and intimacy in the writing.  The work simply came out freshly minted -- with more lyrical flow and mystery than I had previously heard.   Their recording is on Supraphon 3922-2.

While the two quartets of Janacek are now cornerstones in the repertory of many ensembles, 25 years ago this would not have been so.  And certainly even fewer ensembles would have tried the three quartets of celebrated modern English composer, Benjamin Britten.  Even these are now becoming mainline!  The Pavel Haas gave a strong and committed performance of Britten’s ingenious String Quartet No. 2 (1945), but one that at times was a little too romantic and emotional. The work, commemorating British composer Henry Purcell’s 250th anniversary, has a Baroque inspiration and a classical austerity to it.  One sees an intellectual cunning and sharpness in the musical experiments, and an ethereal vision too, but the work is not obviously telling a ‘human’ story or one based on folk inspiration.  Here the group’s Slavic background did not fully work in its favour.  The opening movement was indeed beautifully played but was given just slightly too much romantic shaping.   It should be purer and more disembodied in feel.  They also tried to extract too much feeling from the following Vivace rather than simply enjoying Britten’s intellectual delight in motion and tone colour.  


The Czechs have hardly been foreigners to Beethoven as the classic performances by the Smetana and Vlach Quartets testify to.  I was just listening to the Czech Radio performances from the 1960’s of the latter ensemble (Praga 256 005.06) and was left with no doubt as to the stature of these readings, revealing remarkable grip, insight and sensitivity.  Unfortunately, the Pavel Haas performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No.13, Op. 130 is not yet in this league, lacking the complexity, sinew and structural strength that are the hallmarks of great interpretations of the ‘late’ quartets.  The performance again featured many instances of beautiful soft playing but lacked a firm hand overall, ending up somewhat unfocused and lacking in concentration.  The group tended to alternate between sharp attack and inward thoughtfulness even though the music often required something in between.  Thus, the wonderful, athletic Presto seemed slightly pale and understated, and the supreme beauty of the Cavatina surfaced with less poignancy than usual.   The final Grosse Fugue, Op. 133 certainly had plenty of energy, but the ending really sounded more like Dvorak than Beethoven.

In many ways, a fascinating concert.  The young Pavel Haas Quartet has undisputed mastery in Czech music but, perhaps expectedly, show their innocence elsewhere.

© Geoffrey Newman 2012