The Spirit of Czech Romantic Chamber Music

Prazak Quartet with Menahem Pressler, piano, Vancouver Playhouse, March 15, 2011

Pavel Haas Quartet, Vancouver Playhouse, April 5, 2011

Few 19th C. ‘national’ schools of music convey their emotional content as easily as the Czechs.  Compulsive warmth and rhythm, high drama, infectious joy, serene contemplation, deep nostalgia, and an untamed freedom of spirit all flow naturally out of this music, sometimes in very close proximity to one another.  Perhaps this is because Czech music and life are interwoven with an inescapable folklore and history that magnify meaning and feeling, expression that can surface spontaneously at any moment.  Czech string ensembles reflect this spirit.  They seldom produce smooth, uniform textures; their lean, pointed projection is designed to capture moment-to-moment emotional and rhythmic changes and to highlight the significance of each individual instrumental utterance.  While the first violin and cello always require strength and an imaginative flexibility, it is often the varying timbre of the viola that underpins the emotional journey and hits the deeper chord.

Suk Trio, Photo:  Deutsche Grammophon

Suk Trio, Photo: Deutsche Grammophon

Fortunately, since the end of WW II, we have been served with the highest level of Czech artistry.  Largely because of the long-standing relationship between chamber musicians and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the legendary reign of conductor Vaclav Talich, there was almost a family link to the greatest Czech composers. Three exceptional string quartets came to dominate Prague’s music landscape: the Smetana Quartet, the Janacek Quartet and the Vlach Quartet.  Furthermore, Joseph Suk, Jr., great-grandson of Dvorak himself, formed the famous Suk Trio, also specializing in the works for violin and piano (often with pianist Jan Panenka).  Many would regard these groups’ performances and recordings (1954-68) of the works of Smetana, Dvorak, and Janacek as definitive and almost unsurpassable for their rhythmic strength, natural fluency, and sensitivity.  So much were these works ‘in the musician’s bones’ that it was often as if the soloists were ‘speaking’ directly to each other and to the listener -- truly a golden age of Czech chamber music.

The Smetana Quartet, Photo: The Guardian

The Smetana Quartet, Photo: The Guardian

While the Smetana Quartet was to play until the 1980’s (and in fact performed for our Friends of Chamber Music), other groups such as the Prague Quartet, the Panocha Quartet, and the Talich Quartet eventually came to surface.   It was only the Talich Quartet that really matched the profundity of the earlier age, combining wonderful rhythmic precision, inward feeling, and sophisticated detailing; the other groups often settled for robust Bohemian rhythms and accents, and passionate exuberance alone.  Nonetheless, performances by the latter were certainly enjoyable and ‘authentic’ in feel and it turned out that the Prague Quartet was in fact the only string quartet to record (for Deutsche Grammophon) an absolutely ‘complete’ set of Dvorak quartets (including all his ‘juvenile’ quartets). 

Of the two quartets under review, the Prazak Quartet started life in the early 80’s, closest in model to the early Dvorak Quartet – robust, earthy, full of Czech accents but, originally, prone to being overenthusiastic and somewhat loose in ensemble and tempo.  Thirty years later (with 30 or so recordings on the Praga label under its belt), the Prazaks are indeed more disciplined with a stronger corporate sonority but still maintain their earthy directness.  While we have welcomed ensembles more recently such as the ’new’ Vlach Quartet Prague (a complete quartet cycle for Naxos), the Pavel Haas Quartet is the ‘sensational’ newcomer, formed in 2002, and winning the Paulo Borciani competition in 2005.  This quartet has stunning technical control and tonal blend, but it is its sophisticated detailing, thoughtfulness and elegance that make it so special, linking it back to the Talich Quartet in some ways.  Czech accents are perfectly judged but it has a very ‘modern’ feel, its style of articulation being lighter, faster and more poised than its predecessors. 

Prazak Quartet, Menahem Pressler

Prazak Quartet, Menahem Pressler

The two great works on the Prazak Quartet’s programme perfectly illustrate the wide range and depth of feeling that is the essence of Czech chamber music.  The pained and impassioned opening viola statement in Bedrich Smetana’s autobiographical String Quartet No. 1 (‘From My Life’) starts us on a journey where rhythmic assertion is played off with a persistent, but varied, tremolo suggesting degrees of foreboding and doubt.  The second movement is the only uncomplicated part of the work: a rhythmically-innovative recollection of the play of high-stepping, dancing youth.  But the following slow movement, recalling past love, takes us very gradually from a fairly neutral recollection in tranquility to an increasingly forlorn and pained state.  After the initial agitation of the finale, the magic moment occurs when a high pitched violin note over tremelo signals the composer’s deafness.  The music suddenly becomes veiled and remote.  The prior recollection of dancing youth becomes tentative and faltering, of past love, thin and emaciated, and the work ends on the softest plucked strings.

Antonin Dvorak’s Piano Quintet, Op. 81 also mixes many different expressions of high spirits with quieter contemplation.  The opening movement combines exceptional lyrical warmth with strong dramatic attack but it is the use of the ‘dumka’ in the second movement that captures a fundamental component of this composer’s expression.  A dumka is most often a simple Slavic folk melody, contemplative and melancholic in nature.  In Dvorak’s hands, however, the dumka can take one into a world of the most heartfelt, tender expression, suggesting an almost pagan bond between the man’s soul and the earth.  The Scherzo introduces infectiously-delightful themes and rhythms, but the poco tranquillo ending returns us to the dumka feeling.  And similarly for the finale.  It is difficult to think of a more life-giving and rollicking theme than the one that appears here (even Scott Joplin would have envied this one) but while it is so compulsive, the end of the work magically returns us to the composer’s quiet world for a moment before ending brilliantly.

How were the performances? As with the Prazak’s performance of Leos Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 (‘Intimate Pages’) a few seasons ago, Smetana’s first quartet received a strong, intense performance, consistently bringing out the cutting edge quality of many of the contrasts but also providing a compelling integration from first note to last. The quiet ending was perfectly judged.  This almost linear, objective style is not the only way to play this work, but it was quite overwhelming on its own terms.   A quick re-hearing of the classic Smetana Quartet recording (1959, Supraphon) does reveal somewhat more musical ‘space’ and emotional range.  If not so obviously dramatic, this earlier performance conveys a more subtle sense of pain and intimacy, and the instrumental voices literally speak to each other in penetrating the sadness of this work.

The performance of Dvorak’s Piano Quintet was quite different, incorporating the influence of pianist Menahem Pressler, a founding father of modern chamber music and still as buoyant as ever even in his late 80’s.  Fully convincing performances of the quintet are not thick on the ground.  The difficulty is in finding the right balance between all the pensive dumka moments and its obvious momentum and high spirits.  Many performances let the latter dominate; this one came very close to the right type of integration.  The key was Menahem Pressler’s jeweled but quiet playing throughout the work.  Even in the opening movement, which has much energy and attack in it, the pianist would frequently back off into a rapt, still private world.  Certainly this paid clear dividends in the second movement, which is the dumka movement per se.  But the Prazak also got into this spirit and their wonderfully expressive, anthemic treatment of the third movement’s close was revealing, as was their heartfelt vibrato-less utterance in the magical passage just before the work ended.  This was a rich experience, even if this interpretation may have still been a ‘work in progress’ for the performers.

The following concert featured the Pavel Haas Quartet playing Dvorak’s most popular String Quartet No. 12, Op. 96 (‘American’).  While the last quartets, Op. 105 and 106, are bigger and probably greater works, Dvorak never wrote a finer and more perfectly balanced piece of chamber music than this.  From its sleek opening movement, through the dumka slow movement and innovative scherzo, to the snapping rhythms and momentum of its finale, everything seems perfectly in place.  This dumka is unique; now using ‘new world’ black spirituals as the basis for this type of expression.  We of course note this in the New World Symphony, Op 95 too, testifying to the composer’s intriguing use of American folk sources to express his own homesickness for Bohemia.

The Pavel Haas Quartet is indeed remarkable.  They can move from vibrant, dynamic passages to the quietist still instantaneously, and they are so intelligent at probing the complexity of a work.  I should note the evident skill and judgment of their leader, violinist Veronika Jaruskova.

Pavel Haas Quartet

Pavel Haas Quartet

Overall, the performance was extremely thoughtful and aware, with immensely agile playing.  The group was completely at home with the many twists and turns of the opening movement, giving many of the softer passages new meaning.  The dumka slow movement received a very rapt, inward treatment, soft and very controlled in phrasing.  The scherzo was performed as well as I have ever heard: wonderfully crisp, intelligent articulation.  And the delicious way that this young quartet handled the Czech accents at the opening of the finale was something to marvel at, carrying the movement through with just the right momentum and point.  This was, quite simply, playing of the highest order, free of ostentation and fully at the service of the composer.  While  the performance of the slow movement might have been be a little freer and more emotional, it certainly stacks up strongly relative to the countless recordings of this work; only the classic 1964 Decca recording by the Janacek Quartet might have more naturalness and spontaneity.

These two concerts provided a wonderful introduction to the spirit and style of Czech chamber music.  While both the Prazak and Pavel Haas Quartets are quite different in sound and focus, together they show us the range and diversity within this music.  We should also be grateful to the latter for introducing String Quartet No. 1 of Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942) to us.  He, along with Pavel Haas (1899-94) did not survive the Holocaust.  Schulhoff’s enigmatic quartet shows us the range of invention of this composer: from frenetic Slavic energy to Viennese café music, to a bleak, grotesque and very quiet world where nothing moves much at all.

© Geoffrey Newman 2011