Canada Haydn, Janáček and Dvořák: Pražák Quartet (Pavel Hula and Vlastimil Holek, violins, Josef Klusoň, viola, Michal Kaňka, cello), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 10.3.2015 (GN)
Haydn: String Quartet Op. 71, No. 1 in B-flat major,
Janáček: String Quartet No. 2, ‘Intimate Letters’
Dvořák: String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 51
When I was young, I managed to see the Smetana Quartet play Dvořák. It amazed me to hear these somewhat severe European gentlemen produce such a wonderful flow of romantic sentiment with such natural rhythmic point and energy, contours so sharp, utterance so direct. The event left its mark: even now, I remain nostalgic about the ‘golden age’ of Czech chamber music (1950-1970), prizing my many recordings of the Smetana and of other ensembles such as the Janáček Quartet (who played from memory), the original Vlach Quartet, and violinist Josef Suk and the Suk Trio. These performers remain so endearing because they link directly to the great Czech composers of the 19th and early 20th centuries: first, through the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and second, through conductor Václav Talich. Suk had a family tie to Dvořák himself.
This link has become increasingly tenuous as time passes. The Czech quartets that formed around 1970 were still taught by members of the great quartets, so the distinctive tone quality and all the dimensions of bowing, phrasing and rhythmic accent could be passed on. But these ensembles are seriously dwindling in number. It seems that only the Pražák Quartet and the Panocha Quartet do extensive international touring; the esteemed Talich Quartet still appears, but has largely fallen off the radar. And it is not clear what the current state of the Kocian Quartet is; its leader, Pavel Hula, departed to join the Pražák Quartet in 2010.
Every appearance by the Pražák allows me a wonderful exercise in nostalgia. Fortunately, they have been regular visitors to Vancouver (for the record, they’ve appeared 14 times in the last 29 years). The authenticity of their sound and style undoubtedly comes from the fact that all but one of the members are original; even the replacement first violinist is a celebrated artist from the same tradition.
When I originally heard this ensemble, I thought that it was probably closest in style to the early Dvořák Quartet ̶ robust, earthy, full of Czech accents, but also prone to overenthusiasm and somewhat loose in ensemble and tempo. With some 60 recordings now on Praga, the group is far more disciplined, with a stronger corporate sonority, and is one of the Czech Republic’s most esteemed ensembles. They still maintain their earthy directness, distinctive voicing and freshness, though I might add that their lyrical line is typically less broad than the classic groups.
Their Haydn Quartet, Op. 71, No. 1 was an absolute delight. In the opening Allegro, the ensemble seemed to move directly to the heart of the music, nothing over-adorned, just faithful and true, full of rhythmic life. The following Adagio was even better: their raw, sharp timbres combined in a natural expressive flow that was both subtle and emotionally rich. The rhythmic push and pure zeal of the Finale was simply delicious.
Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2 was his last work and is indisputably one of the greatest 20th-century works for string quartet. Titled ‘Intimate Letters’, it contains some of the most personal utterances written by the composer. It also has a variety of jagged experimental bowings, an abruptness and a wonderfully passionate, dramatic side as well. I thought the Pražák did a remarkable job with the opening Andante, finding its different shades of longing but also achieving a stellar integration of the multi-layered lyrical themes. There was a freeness to the expression here. One approach to the following Adagio is to move slowly towards increased intimacy; the other is to keep the passion and feeling going longer. The latter alternative was chosen, the ensemble negotiating the movement with poise and colour, almost securing a sensuality in its many textures. In fact, this seemed to symbolize their basic approach throughout. Passionate drama also figured at the end of the next movement, and it was mainly raw earthy rhythms and dramatic force that created the superb unity of the final Allegro, uncovering much emotional volatility along the way.
A strong and exciting rendering, but I found it romantically fulsome to the point where it made the work hint back more to Smetana’s First String Quartet than look forward to something truly modern and path-breaking. The recorded performances of the Janáček Quartet and, later, the Talich Quartet reveal just how intimate and enigmatic this work can be ̶ the startling string punctuations almost like voices ‘speaking’ to the listener.
Dvořák’s lovely Op. 51 is the greatest of his early quartets, superbly lyrical, directly expressive and largely free from his earlier tendency to overwrite. The benchmark performance for me has always been the early 1960s recording by the original Vlach Quartet, which has so much poise and radiant suspension of its lyrical flow, especially in the long opening Allegro. The current performance was different, faster and more tightly-knit in the first two movements and more analytic overall. There was a stronger attempt to bring out harmonic relations, complex voicings and the tightness of the rhythms. Perhaps I did not feel the beauty, tenderness and sheer charm in the writing as much, but it was an interesting alternative, and gained in cogency. The following Dumka brought variety and expressive warmth to its imitative exchanges, and the Romanza exhibited lovely restraint. Both it and the last movement were for the most part splendidly done, the Finale pushing forth with all the right energy and drive.
All qualifications aside, this concert added up to a uniquely powerful Czech experience. I loved it and, apparently, so did everybody else. We got a glimmer of the character, spirit and feeling of ‘old world’ chamber music: music-making that comes forth like a fine wine stored in an old casket! The engaging encore was Dvořák’s Waltz in D major, Op. 54.
Previously published in a slightly modified form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com