Pavel Haas Quartet at Wigmore Hall – Smetana, Dvořák & Brahms

String Quartet No.2 in D minor
String Quartet No.9 in E flat, Op.51
String Quartet No.2 in A minor, Op.51/2

Pavel Haas Quartet [Veronika Jarůškova & Marek Zeiwbel (violins), Pavel Nikl (viola) & Peter Jarůšek (cello)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 28 March, 2014
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Paavel Haas Quartet. Photograph: Marco BorggreveAn almost-capacity audience greeted this latest appearance at Wigmore Hall by the Pavel Haas Quartet, and it was a measure of the ensemble’s unwavering commitment that it was able to carry those present throughout what was overall an emotionally restrained evening.

Not that such a description applies to the opening work. Smetana’s Second String Quartet (1883) has only quite recently been accepted into the repertoire (at least outside of Czech-speaking lands) – the knowledge that the composer wrote it on the brink of his descent into a syphilis-derived madness probably detracting from its intrinsic quality as music. Schoenberg was an early advocate, and this performance left no doubt as to the ingenuity that underlies – however intuitively – its cumulative expressive power. Especially admirable was the degree to which its four movements were rendered as an unfolding continuity towards the desperate resolution of its brief finale – confirming this piece as the harbinger of those no less formally fractured string-quartets by Janáček a generation later. Whether or not this was a work Smetana would have chosen to write, its artistic triumph over an existential adversity was palpable.

After this, the E flat String Quartet (1879) by Dvořák provided necessary balm. The fact that this is already the ninth of his fourteen contributions to the genre says much about its compositional maturity (as also about the relative neglect of almost all those that precede it), The PHQ responded in full to the inwardness and intimacy as holds good throughout its first three movements – whether in the long-breathed melodic potency of the initial Allegro (is there a more effortless intertwining of melody and accompaniment in the literature than its opening theme), the deft interweaving of ‘dumka’ and ‘furiant’ in its successor, or the mingling of rapture and pathos in a ‘Romance’ comparable to those symphonic slow movements to come. The finale displays a more overtly Bohemian vigour (doubtless explaining the ‘Slavonic’ subtitle sometimes used), though not so as to undermine the expressive poise of the work as a whole.

Mention of Schoenberg reminds that he was also a champion of Brahms’s Opus 51 String Quartets at a time when they were more admired than enjoyed. Even now, they tend to be downgraded compared to his Sextets and Quintets either side – yet the A minor, in particular, has a wealth of melodic ideas to balance its formal severity: something the PHQ brought out in the first movement’s eloquent second theme, or in the wistful main idea of an Andante whose inwardness is briefly disrupted by the agitated episode near its centre. The third movement’s fusion of intermezzo and trio is consummately achieved even by Brahms’s standards, while the alternately angular and suave finale typifies the piece as a whole in its placing overt emphasis on the first violin as a ‘first among equals’ (no doubt a consequence of its intended dedication to Joachim): suffice to add that Veronika Jarůškova met the challenge with fearless resolve.

A thoughtfully planned programme, then, and also a fine demonstration of what makes the Pavel Haas Quartet one of the most outstanding of such ensembles today. Hopefully these musicians will be returning soon to Wigmore Hall: how about with one of Dvořák’s even earlier String Quartets and the one from 1911 by Josef Suk?

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