Glorious Outpouring of Czech Chamber Music at Aldeburgh Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Janáček, Smetana: The Pavel Haas String Quartet [Veronika Jarůškova & Marek Zwiebel (violins), Pavel Niki (viola), Peter Jarůšk (cello)], Aldeburgh Parish Church, Aldeburgh Festival, 14.06.2014 (CS)

Janáček: String Quartet No.1 (‘After L.N. Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata’)
Smetana: String Quartet No.1 in E minor (‘From My Life’)
String Quartet No.2 in D minor
Janáček: String Quartet No.2 (‘Intimate Letters’)


Since coming to the attention of the musical world in 2005 as winners of both the Prague Spring International Music Competition and the Paolo Borciani competition in Italy, the Pavel Haas String Quartet has rapidly established its position among the most highly esteemed quartets performing today.  Noted for their bold, exciting playing, the quartet – named after the 20th-century Czech composer who was murdered during the Holocaust in 1944 and whose music they have championed – the Prague-based quartet have been particularly admired for their performances of the music of their compatriots, combining an instinctive Czech spirit with an innovative and daring approach.

This two-concert programme of music by Leoš Janáček and Bedřich Smetana felt somewhat ‘epic’; it certainly required immense physical and mental stamina and concentration from the Pavel Haas, but the dramatic intensity of their playing was never anything other than fresh and stimulating.  The players’ immersion in the score was evident in the way that they scarcely seemed to need more than the merest prompt from the music before them, eyes turning frequently towards their partners in the musical conversation, or fixed upon leader Veronika Jarůškova who, without undue flamboyance, was the controlling central force amid the maelstrom of dynamic musical energies.  This was breathless, physical playing, and the quartet’s tone at times assumed orchestral dimensions; but they were capable too of creating a transparent limpidity.

Janáček’s Quartet No.1 (1923) bears the subtitle ‘After L.N. Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata’; written when the composer was 69 years-of-age. It was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella and also incorporates references to Beethoven’s eponymous violin sonata, but while various commentators have attempted to discern a correlation between the quartet and its literary source the ‘evidence’ is inconclusive at best.  The Pavel Haas suggested a ‘narrative’ of fervent and fierce human passions though, the individual lines truly ‘speaking’ to each other, in unceasing interchange.  Janáček’s small, driving motifs, repeated and exchanged – ‘speech melodies’, derived from the contours of snatches of speech overheard, on the street, on railway platforms, in cafes, that he recorded in musical notation – were ‘voiced’ with ceaseless animation suggesting unfolding drama.

Much depends upon the ever-changing timbre, texture, tempi and dynamics which evoke the restlessness of human emotions and relationships.  The organic flexibility of the Pavel Haas’s playing was apparent from the first: the melancholy nostalgia of the first violin’s opening two-bar motif, sighed above muted tremolando in the middle voices, then gave way instantly to the agile sprightliness of cellist Peter Jarůšk’s light quavers.  Propelling repetitions of small rhythmic cells were punctuated by extrovert pizzicati; the juxtaposed passages of contrasting tempi were stitched convincingly.  In the polka-inspired second movement, Pavel Niki announced the cheeky ‘questioning’ melodic motif with an insouciance which modulated into assertive confidence when the phrase was subsequently developed into a more expansive, lyrical form.  Sul ponticello tremolando and vibrant cello trills were among a broad range of colouristic techniques which dazzled, as the hypnotic ostinato and accelerating patterns surged onwards.

The elegant melody which commences the third movement sang with eloquently yearning, first violin and cello establishing an intimacy which was abruptly curtailed by the aggressive interruption of second violin (Marek Zwiebel) and viola, whose incredibly strident sul ponticelli demi-semiquavers suggested the frenzy of a desire bordering on madness.  Preceding the final restatement of this material at the end of the movement, Jarůškova’s soaring stratospheric melody gleamed with impassioned feeling.  The depth and diversity of experience suggested by the richly evocative terrain through which the quartet had travelled, imbued the restatement of the first movement’s initial melodic idea at the beginning of the closing movement with a lugubrious weight, and as the tempo and rhetorical intensity  gradually increased there was an air of reckless abandon.  Yet within the frenetic material the individual voices were always clearly heard creating spaciousness within which Janáček’s meaning could bloom.

The first string quartet of ‘the Father of Czech (Classical) Music’, Bedřich Smetana, followed.  Written in 1876, it was composed two years after the composer first began to experience the hearing problems which were to result in profound and permanent deafness.  Like Janáček’s quartet, it too bears a subtitle, ‘From My Life’ (‘Z mého života’) and Smetana explained that it was intended to paint a ‘tone picture’ of his life.  The Pavel Haas captured both the buoyant optimism of youth and the foreshadowing of the tragedy that lay ahead.  After an aggressive opening chord, the rhythms of the viola’s folky melody created a more relaxed ambience, and in the quieter, even-tempered second subject the four voices merged tenderly.  The running triplets of the development section raced up and down single strings with robust agility, and this litheness spilled over into the Allegro moderato a la Polka in which the fanfare-like second theme had an exuberant brazenness.  Countering such high spirits, in the contrasting quiet, more restrained passages, the paired violins’ expressive sighs were beautifully phrased above the repetitive rhythmic chattering of viola and cello.

The eloquence of the cello melody which commences the Largo sostenuto was deeply engaging, and the trills upon which it came to rest seemed an invitation from Jarůšk for the others to join him.  The first violin’s serene strain was complemented by melodic gestures from the inner voices, and the movement swelled with passion, the wide vibrato of the cello’s recapitulation of the main theme creating a resounding tone through which the violin threaded fleetly running decorations.  It was a pity that the sweet, hushed close was disturbed by passing traffic, but the Pavel Haas swept forward into the Vivace finale, Jarůškova’s gleaming melody accompanied by bright, busy semiquavers.  The joy was checked, though, by the violin’s glinting E harmonic, representative of, as Smetana explained, ‘the fateful ringing in my ears of the high-pitched tones which in 1874 announced the beginning of my deafness’. He went on, ‘I permitted myself this little joke, because it was so disastrous to me’, but there was little humour in the concluding moments of the quartet, as the music gradually slipped away into three pensive pizzicato chords, and then silence.

Smetana’s Second String Quartet (1883), heard one hour later, is less well-known and was composed during a period of worsening health as Smetana descended into syphilis-derived madness.  Strikingly, this unconventional work seems to anticipate the juxtaposition of soulful Romanticism and modernist anxiety which so characterises Janáček’s two quartets.  The opening Allegro, with its ever-changing tempi and time signatures was notable for the way the Pavel Haas Quartet created balance between rising tension and release, both harmonically and texturally, before settling into an expansive cantabile at the close of the movement.  Pavel Niki’s tender mezza voce song was beautifully nuanced in the ensuing Allegro moderato, while the open of the third movement – Allegro no più moderato, ma agitato e con fuoco – certainly lived up to Smetana’s instructions, the whirlwind the semiquavers leading into a march-like fugue which became more lyrical and expansive with each successive entry.   This natural, organic growth of the material was a microcosmic representation of the way that the Pavel Haas rendered the four movements as an ongoing form evolving inevitably towards the succinct resolution offered by the concluding Presto. Schoenberg reportedly declared that Smetana’s second quartet ‘opened the world to him’, and this assured performance made convincing claims for the work to be more regularly heard.

Janáček’s Quartet No.2, Intimate Letters, was the composer’s last completed work.  Like the other quartets in the programme it is informed by biographical events and voices the composer’s ecstatic and unrequited passion for Kamila Stösslova, a woman 37 years younger than Janáček who was the ‘muse’ inspiring the magnificent musical outpouring of the latter years of his life.  The Pavel Haas’s recording of this quartet (paired with Pavel Haas’s Quartet No.2, From the Monkey Mountains) received a 2007 Gramophone Award and the technical virtuosity and burning impact of this performance made it clear why.

In the first movement, Jarůšk’s explosive trill triggered impassioned statements from the two violins, before the viola’s ethereal muted melody brought temporary calm; such unpredictability and restlessness characterises the movement, but the overall form cohered and there was lucidity despite the agitated textures, particularly as the overall tessitura widened.  The homogenous articulation and phrasing of the four voices in the Adagio created a single song-like voice, and the brief return of the first movement’s theme felt convincing and predestined, part of an emerging musical narrative.  The gently rocking shapes of the Lento and the appealing blended tone of the two violins were comforting, providing a moment of repose, before the assertive dance of the Allegro raced to its conclusion, a tumult of harmonics, open strings, trills, mordents and spread pizzicato chords – a final deluge of shuddering emotions.

This was authoritative playing, finely embodying the spirit of the Czech Quartet tradition.  The Pavel Haas took risks; without a doubt, they all came off.  Their prodigious technical skills allowed them to communicate a musical vision which was original, clear and invigorating.

Claire Seymour

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