Pražák and Zemlinsky Quartets Combine for Two Sextets and Mendelssohn’s Octet

CanadaCanada Dvořák , Schulhoff, Mendelssohn: Pražák Quartet (Jana Vonášková and Vlastimil Holek [violins], Josef Kluson [viola], Michal Kanka [cello]) and Zemlinsky Quartet (František Souček and Petr Střížek [violins], Petr Holman [viola], Vladimír Fortin [cello]), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 29.1.2019. (GN)

Pražák and Zemlinsky String Quartets © Mark Mushet
Pražák and Zemlinsky String Quartets © Mark Mushet

Dvořák – String Sextet in A major Op.48
Schulhoff – String Sextet
Mendelssohn – Octet for Strings in E-flat major Op.20

There is something wonderfully extravagant about having two international string quartets come together for a concert, especially if they are from the Czech Republic. The Czech quartet tradition has spawned notable ensembles, from the legendary Janáček and Smetana Quartets in the immediate postwar era to groups like the Pavel Haas Quartet today. On this occasion, it was the long-standing Pražák Quartet (formed in 1972) holding hands with the younger Zemlinsky Quartet (formed in 1994). The Mendelssohn Octet was naturally on tap, an enticing prospect since many enthusiasts will remember that the Janáček and Smetana Quartets recorded one of the most scintillating versions ever. The current performance was not quite at that level, but it had an authentic energy. It was equally redeeming to hear the string sextets by Dvořák and Erwin Schulhoff. The latter is a real prize and, in many respects, was the highlight of the evening. The Zemlinsky was the core group for the sextets, joined by the violist and cellist from the Pražák.

Dvořák’s String Sextet is not the easiest work to start off with. It weds the composer’s characteristic lyricism with an appealing rhythmic buoyancy but contains passages of uninspired rhetoric: naïve key changes and repetitive imitative sequences often mingle with its beauties. A performance must exude sufficient fluidity and charm so that one forgets about the deficiencies and concentrates on the work’s radiant hues. One continuing source of pleasure in this performance was hearing the group’s burnished corporate texture, the rustic pungency of its lower strings and its sharp and knowing Czech accents. Yet I’m not sure it caught the musicians in full flower: the treatment seemed more on the earnest and disciplined side and did not fully project the work’s easeful lyricism or tender melancholy. The best parts were the more energetic ones, notably in the Furiant and the Finale, where the ensemble’s rhythmic address was most impressive.

Inspiration climbed significantly in the 1924 Schulhoff Sextet. Erwin Schulhoff’s music has received increased attention over the last few decades as part of the attempt to rediscover Jewish composers whose music, deemed degenerate by the Nazis, was often destroyed or lost; ‘Entartete Musik’ also includes composers such as Pavel Haas, Ernst Krenek, Viktor Ullmann, Berthold Goldschmidt and Szymon Laks. Bold structural ingenuity typifies a lot of this piece, which often portrays moments of crazed frenzy, fleeting nostalgia and, ultimately, a disembodied, futile world where time goes on but nothing actually moves much. The two slow movements of the sextet convey the latter feeling most poignantly, even though the work was written almost two decades before the composer’s ultimate plight: he died in a concentration camp in 1942. Here the composer was reacting to his experiences in World War I, when he had been conscripted into the Austrian army.

Schulhoff’s opening Allegro risoluto moves forward with intensity and abruptness, while registering a clear debt to the chromatism of the early New Vienna School. Its fervour was finely caught in this performance. More compelling still was the brazen Burlesca, where the percussive thrusts and accents and the irregular rhythms were articulated with transparency and the strongest energy – sometimes almost a savagery. This is a beautifully written scherzo – innovative, sharply dramatic, yet totally cogent and arresting. There is a cinematic quality to both slow movements, but also a purity of utterance, and they are consistently quiet and suspending. The Tranquillo is a particularly haunting movement with tremolos and a variety of special effects. A descending passage seems to ‘wail’ forth, and at times the ghost of Schoenberg is not far off. A deeply felt cello solo leads to a world which is threatening by virtue of its sheer absence of colour. The closing Molto adagio is perhaps stranger still: objects seem to float by devoid of purpose or spirit, musically grounded on two alternating pedals. At the close, the almost imperceptible rhythmic figure that disappears into timelessness is breathtaking. Many composers have attempted to probe this underworld of emptiness with much less success, and there is absolutely nothing self-conscious about Schulhoff’s writing: it seems remarkably true. The ensemble’s concentration and care over dynamics – especially in the quietest moments – made for an involving experience.

And on to the Mendelssohn, likely the most joyous and effervescent piece ever written by a 16- year-old and the honoured display piece for a collaboration of two string quartets. The performance had a nice rhythmic energy and continuity throughout. Jana Vonášková, who joined the Pražák ensemble as first violin in 2015 and is well known for her fine recordings with the Smetana Trio, led the two ensembles and coaxed fine point and a hardy strength in the execution. The long first movement seemed to get better as it progressed, with more obvious synergy in the playing and finding a real frisson by the end. The two middle movements were somewhat less compelling: the Andante seemed a bit too romantic and heavy for Mendelssohn (it needed more feeling of innocence) while the famous Scherzo might have been articulated more decisively. Nonetheless, the finale brought all the energy back and, barring a little scrappiness here and there, the performance built to its close with the right sense of budding joy and elation. There can be few more fun movements to witness, with the tunes and entrances visibly moving across the stage.

This was a most enjoyable concert. We have long cherished the visit of any Czech string quartet, but to have two – and a programme like this – was a very special occasion.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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