Germany Pavel Haas, Smetana, Schubert: Pavel Haas Quartet (Veronika Jaruskova, 1st violin, Eva Karova, 2nd violin, Pavel Nikl, viola, Peter Jarusek, cello, Dresden Music Festival 2012, Schloss Albrechtsberg, Dresden, Germany 18.5.2012 (MC)
Pavel Haas: Quartet No. 1 in C sharp minor, Op. 3 (1920)
Smetana: String Quartet No. 1 in E minor ‘From My Life’ (1876)
Schubert: String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D.810 ‘Death and the Maiden’ (1824)
This recital by the Pavel Haas Quartet who hail from the Czech Republic was one of those special recitals that I didn’t want to end. Adding to the appeal was a cleverly devised programme of familiar and unfamiliar music with contrasting styles, spanning around a hundred years.
I first heard the Pavel Haas Quartet at a BDP Music Society recital in Preston, England in October 2006. This was just prior to the quartet’s success in the chamber music category at the 2007 Gramophone Awards for their recording of the Pavel Haas String Quartet No. 2, Op. 7 ‘From the Monkey Mountains’ and Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’ on Supraphon SU78772. Since then Katerina Gemrotova has left and the second violin is now played by Eva Karova. Now nearly seven years later as part of the Dresden Music Festival 2012 I saw the Pavel Haas Quartet play at the attractive Schloss Albrechtsberg, the neo-classical castle in Dresden on the south bank of the River Elbe.
To a packed audience in the beautifully appointed recital room of the Schloss the quartet opened with the Quartet No. 1 in C sharp minor, Op. 3 by Pavel Haas from whom the ensemble take their name. Pavel Haas was a Czech composer born into a Jewish family in Brno who studied for a time with Janáček and was murdered in 1944 by the Nazis in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Played in one continuous movement the C sharp minor score began with a mournful cry from Karova’s 2nd violin. Played with purposeful and gripping intensity this is a cheerless and discomforting score owing to its degree of heartfelt yearning and at times its sense of total desolation. The presence of folk themes served to soften the overall sense of sombreness. A mournful and prominent line on Peter Jarusek’s mellow sounding cello underpinned most of the score. Often I was reminded of the sound world of Shostakovich but without the overt quirkiness or memorability of the great Russian composer.
The String Quartet No 1 in E minor titled‘From My Life’ from Czech composer Smetana is frequently encountered on recital programmes today. This strongly programmatic four movement score was completed in 1876 by which time the composer had become deaf. Played with luminosity and intensity one sensed that this music runs through the blood of the Pavel Haas Quartet. In the joyful carnival-like mood of the Allegro moderato à la Polka the highly rhythmic playing was delightful. Opened by Jarusek’s plaintive cello in its low register the Largo sostenuto contained a palpable yearning quality, a depiction that recalled the composer’s ecstasy of being in love with Kateřina – the girl who became his wife. Splendidly rendered the occasional touches of melancholy must surely be connected to the death of three of Smetana’s four daughters.
Closing the recital was Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor ‘Death and the Maiden’, a much loved staple of the chamber music repertoire. By the time of its composition in 1824 Schubert had become aware that he was gravely ill and the spectre of death seems to permeate the score. After a rather tentative opening to the first movement the Czech quartet revealed the essential elements of intensity and defiant high drama. In the Andante a theme and set of variations based on Schubert’s song ‘Death and the Maiden’ the players shrouded the gentle beauty of the writing with a liberal covering of melancholy. Leader Veronika Jaruskova splendidly communicated her extended solo themes that were so prominent they could have been fragments from a violin concerto. Swirling with verve like a dance of death the brief Scherzo contained the appropriate mix of torment and menace. Incessant with its driving and vigorous rhythms the players brought the Rondo, Finale to an electrifying conclusion with liberal amounts of energy and passion. The audience loved the performance and showed their appreciation with a great round of applause. I was somewhat disappointed but not surprised that the quartet chose to play an encore which after what we had just heard seemed meaningless and rather broke the spell of this memorable recital.