United Kingdom Janáček, Smetana: Dvořák Pavel Haas Quartet, Ivo Kahánek (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.12.2014 (RB)
Janáček – In the Mists
Smetana – String Quartet No. 2 in D Minor
Dvořák – Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Op 81
This concert was part of the Pavel Haas Quartet’s Bohemia Cycle and one of a series featuring music by Czech composers. The Quartet was originally scheduled to play with Brahms specialist Nicholas Angelich. However, Angelich had to withdraw due to a bereavement and the young Czech pianist, Ivo Kahánek, stepped in at the last moment.
The programme opened with Janáček’s poetic piano cycle In the Mists which was written in 1912 during a period when the composer was feeling increasingly isolated and neglected by the musical establishment. Kahánek is a specialist in Czech piano music and he has recorded a number of Janáček’s works so he was on home territory with these miniatures. He succeeded in capturing the poetic essence of each piece and seemed entirely at home with the extreme contrasts. I liked the expressive and flexible phrasing of the first piece and the way in which the wistful leggiero phrases of the central section were allowed to build. The second piece was rapt and beautifully phrased while the central section had a dry kinetic energy. Kahánek evoked an impressionistic glow and a range of imaginative colours in the third piece while the last of the miniatures was played with an artful sense of spontaneity and intricately shaped phrases. This was a good opening to the concert and Kahánek is to be congratulated for being able to put in such a strong performance at such short notice.
The Pavel Haas Quartet then took centre stage for Smetana’s Second String Quartet which was written towards the end of the composer’s life. Smetana was completely deaf when he wrote the work and described it as representing “the turbulence of music in a person who had lost their hearing”. It is a highly concentrated and original piece and it was described by Schoenberg as one of the most forward-looking chamber works of the 19th Century. There are numerous fluctuations in mood and tempo throughout the work and there seemed to be an almost telepathic communication between the members of the Pavel Haas Quartet around tempi, dynamics, colour and texture. They showed they meant business from the outset by giving us a very dramatic and assured opening to the work. The turbulence of the opening movement was certainly there but there was also space for moments of quiet lyrical reflection. I loved the spirited way in which the first violinist, Veronika Jarůšková, played the polka which opens the second movement while all four members created a lovely diaphanous halo of sound in the trio section. The third movement opened with a torrent of notes which were played with a raw visceral energy. This was a highly virtuosic piece of playing but unfortunately – and perhaps not completely unsurprisingly – one of the player’s strings snapped and the Quartet had to withdraw temporarily. They resumed after a short interval and played the third movement again giving an equally committed performance but this time without any incidents. In the final movement they seemed to find just the right balance between the more upbeat qualities of the music and the elements of unease and disquiet before dispatching the coda with a thrilling display of virtuosity.
The string players joined forces with Kahánek for Dvořák’s Second Piano Quintet which was written in 1887, immediately before the American works, when the composer was at the height of his powers. It is a wonderfully serene and lyrical work with a profusion of inventive musical ideas. Kahánek produced luminous broken chords in the opening section while cellist Peter Jarůšek played the gorgeous opening melody with warmth and sincerity. Kahánek was clearly on top of the score and did a pretty good job given that he was parachuted in at the last minute but he was not able to match the intensity of the string players in some of the faster and more impassioned sections of the movement. The Pavel Haas Quartet produced some spectacular and thrilling playing but there was also always a clear sense of line and structure throughout their performance. Kahánek was better in the second movement and he brought a silky sensuality to the melody which was ably matched by Pavel Nikl on the viola. The transitions were extremely well handled throughout the movement and each of the different sections were well characterised. The scherzo was light and brilliant and there was excellent interplay between all five players. The party mood continued in the finale where all five players vied with each other to create a mood of bustling joyful exuberance. Again I felt that the string players eclipsed Kahánek a little and he was not quite able to match the level of energy which they generated. There was a delightfully nuanced poetic episode just before the end of the piece before all five players brought the work to its triumphant conclusion.
Overall, there was a lot of very fine playing in this concert and much to enjoy. I hope the Pavel Haas Quartet get the opportunity to add these works to their already acclaimed discography.