Explosive Stravinsky and Expressive Dvořák: the Pavel Haas Quartet at the Wigmore Hall

12/10/2017

Stravinsky, Ravel, Dvořák: Pavel Haas Quartet (Veronika Jarůšková & Marek Zwiebel [violins], Radim Sedmidubský [viola], Peter Jarůšek [cello], Pavel Nikl (viola), Wigmore Hall, London, 10.10.2017. (CS)

Stravinsky – Concertino for string quartet
Ravel – String Quartet in F major
Dvořák – String Quintet in E flat major Op.97

The Pavel Haas Quartet certainly grabbed Stravinsky’s six-minute Concertino for string quartet by the scruff of the neck at the start of this Wigmore Hall recital.  In the opening bars, Stravinsky throws a characteristic bag-of-tricks at the players gritty repeated down-bows at the heel which drive forward relentlessly, stabbing double-stopped chords, contentious bitonal dissonances, twanging pizzicatos, hollow open strings – all bound together in a web of rhythmic complexity, but the Pavel Haas never looked anything other than commanding and poised.

Stravinsky started sketching the Concertino in 1919, and one could hear the jazzy metric displacements and glittering array of sonorities of contemporaneous works such as The Soldier’s Tale and Ragtime (both of 1918) and the Piano Rag Music (1919).  The pounding repetitions never sounded mechanical, however, and while the instrumental colour was fittingly grainy at times – and wonderfully unanimous – it was never dry.  The folky colour of a Bartókian dance was ever in the air.  And, perhaps it is too fanciful, but the lucidity of texture that the Pavel Haas Quartet achieved seemed to hint at the composer’s research into the Pergolesi scores which would find new life in the neoclassical Pulcinella of 1920.

However, there is delicacy, too, in the Concertino, in the fluty harmonics and sul tasto slenderness of the quietly sustained passages; and, most strikingly in the bed of sound created by the lower voices which serves as a pedal point for the first violin’s ‘cadenza’.  Veronika Jarůšková’s double-stopped rumination was made eloquent by her wonderfully centred intonation and silkily sustained bowing, and propelled gently by Peter Jarůšek’s subtly intrusive pizzicatos.

This ‘exercise in rhythm’ had tremendous bite and what one might describe as ‘controlled volatility’.  Despite the technical virtuosity demanded to make the astonishing variety of devices employed cohere, the Pavel Haas made it look and sound like great fun!

The uniformity and control that proved so advantageous in the Stravinsky were less gainful in the first two movements of Ravel’s String Quartet.  Here, despite the work’s ‘Classicism’, I felt, generally, that greater flexibility of the metrical phrasing would have revealed the full extent of the quartet’s seductiveness.  There was elegance and restraint, and striking delineation of texture and timbre, in the clean-toned Allegro moderato: Très doux.  But, the movement felt just a little under tempo: the inner voices’ slippery chromaticism didn’t quite produce the frisson that a slightly faster pulse might have generated; the tremolando needs to push through the first accelerando with a greater sense of potential freedom.  But, the Pavel Haas’s subtle approach did convey the ‘preciousness’ of the music, and I was impressed by Marek Zwiebel’s strong melodicism and beautiful tone, and by the way that Jarůšek unobtrusively but surely anchored the music.

Given the way the Pavel Haas had frolicked unperturbedly through Stravinsky’s rhythmic games, the Assez vif was oddly subdued.  Every sharply crisp pizzicato was perfectly placed and the opening phrases built to scintillatingly shining first violin high trills; but, perhaps the ‘perfection’ was the ‘problem’ – there was insufficient spirit of unpredictability.  The Lent section was, however, heart-achingly dolorous, Jarůšek’s and Sedmidubský’s sorrowful reflections acquiring increasing strength which seemed to sweep us into a quasi-waltz of melancholy.

The third movement, Très lent, showcased the Pavel Haas’s unmannered attention to detail.  Sedmidubský’s opening phrase had a fixed intensity and this strong presence – and, at last, expressive freedom – was sustained by the high cello line: Jarůšek’s observation of a small accent at the end of the phrase added a telling nuance.  As Ravel’s melodic wisps passed between the voices there was an impression of spontaneous song, introspective but unwaveringly articulate and stirring: Romantic sentiment contained by Classical reticence.  When the boundaries of the latter were broken, there was an impassioned sense of release.  The opening bars of Vif et agité were ferocious – the fermatas were shoved aside by the energy generated in the first bar!  Again, the Pavel Haas’s pin-point precision was impressive – the rapid semiquavers truly shimmered – and the slower ‘interims’ were infected with a bewitching restlessness.

After the interval, the Pavel Haas were joined by viola player Pavel Nikl for Dvořák’s String Quintet in E flat major Op 97.  Nikl was a founding member of the quartet but family illness compelled him to take a break last year, when he was replaced by Škampa Quartet violist Radim Sedmidubský (who had been a regular colleague of cellist Peter Jarůšek, who left the Škampa to join his wife, Veronika, in the Pavel Haas Quartet).

I am not very familiar with this quintet, which the composer wrote during the summer of 1893, in Spillville, Iowa.  It was a sojourn – designed to enable the homesick composer to re-connect with settlers from Bohemia – that he later recalled with warmth: ‘Spillville is an ideal place; I would like to spend the rest of my days there.’  When travelling entertainers and pedlars of The Kickapoo Medicine Show came to town, Dvořák was invigorated by the music they performed – and the quintet bears the mark of this experience and of his studies in African-American music with Harry Thacker Burleigh at the National Conservatory.  The result is a sound-world not that far from the American Quartet, a sound enriched by the additional viola (Dvořák’s own instrument).  But, though there is melodic charm, I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that it’s not one of the composer’s most inspired compositions: as my guest for the evening commented, ‘There’s only so much you can do with a pentatonic scale’.

That said, if there was a sense of ‘revisiting’ the terrain of the American Quartet, and the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, the Pavel Haas and Nikl lavished care and attention on Dvořák’s quintet, creating an infectious joie de vivre, through strongly defined rhythm, deliberately delineated textures, striking dynamic contrast (some astonishing crystalline pianissimos and warm-hearted fortes), and a prevailing lyricism.  There was striking delicacy and transparency in the Allegro non tanto, though the first movement was propelled by an irresistible brio and the outbursts of boisterous bravura were winningly reckless.  Nikl’s initiating solo in the Allegro vivo might have spoken more forcefully, but he set the players off on a bewitching journey which was halted only by the rhetoric power of Sedmidubský’s eloquent lament – until the latter was infiltrated by the rhythmic motifs of the opening and pulled by the hypnotic, penetrating intensity of Jarůšková’s high E-string back into the onwards stomp.

It was easy to be lulled into Dvořák’s dreams of Bohemian bucolic life by the dark-toned opening of the Larghetto, but the Pavel Haas did try to exploit all the colours and moods of the subsequent variations – from the first violin’s ‘erudite’ staccato ornamentation, to the cello’s uprooting, agitating tremolos, culminating in a tender reprise of the theme and a nostalgic close.  The Finale: Allegro giusto balanced insouciance (during the repetitions of the principal lyrical theme, I could visualise Dvořák strolling with hands-in-pocket!) and introspection, and dolce melodic wistfulness was countered by the perky rhythms which built to an explosive fortissimo to conclude an exuberant and enjoyable performance.  The Pavel Haas seemed barely to be looking at the music: not surprising, perhaps, as they have just recorded this string quintet – alongside the Piano Quintet No.2 in A Major Op.81, with Boris Giltburg, on the Supraphon label, for release later this month.

Claire Seymour

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available on the BBC website for one month following the performance.

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