Superb Shostakovich from the Pavel Haas Quartet at Wigmore Hall

24/04/2019

Shostakovich: Pavel Haas Quartet (Veronika Jarůšková & Marek Zwiebel [violins], Jiří Kabát [viola], Peter Jarůšek [cello]), Wigmore Hall, London, 22.4.2019. (CS)

Pavel Haas Quartet (c) Marco Borggreve

Shostakovich – String Quartet No.7 in F# minor Op.108; String Quartet No.2 in A Op.68

An all-Shostakovich programme might have seemed a rather intense proposition for a Bank Holiday lunchtime recital, but the prospect clearly did not deter the large audience at Wigmore Hall who gathered to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet perform the second and seventh of the composer’s string quartets.

Since they were founded in 2002, by leader Veronika Jarůšková and viola player Pavel Niki – the latter left the Quartet in 2016, though still joins his former colleagues to perform and record string quintets, such as their Supraphon recording of Dvořák’s quintets which won a Gramophone Award in 2018 – the Quartet have had several changes of personnel.  Their wonderful ‘open’, sweet-toned sound hasn’t altered though: from the heights of Jarůšková’s powerful, gleaming E string to the low reaches of Peter Jarůšek’s sonorous cello, the sound is warm and beautifully blended.  And, it seemed to me that the Pavel Haas achieved an even fuller amplitude than I remembered – a resonance that here was not ‘heavy’, but always buoyant and free.

Jarůšková led with relaxed confidence, though her manner was never flamboyant.  The violinist has a technique as strong as steel allied with musicality as subtle as silk: it’s wonderful to watch the power evident in her precise, muscular finger-work and the strength of her full bow strokes, but the results are as often delicate as they are dynamic.  The ensemble ‘feels’ democratic; the four individuals achieve an excellent balance, and the conversations are co-operative and communal.  The attention to detail that they displayed was admirable in its own right, but all the more so for the way in which it was complemented by thoughtful, often original, interpretation and crafting.

I have previously heard the Quartet perform mainly in Czech repertoire, their playing characterised by a full supple sound and lithe rhythms.  How would they fare in Shostakovich, where the tension is of a more anxious and brittle kind, where surging, soulful lyricism is replaced by a beautiful, troubled melancholy at once delicate and resilient?

When the Pavel Haas Quartet presented a ‘full-length’ all-Shostakovich programme at Wigmore Hall in May 2018, the Seventh Quartet prefaced the Eighth, with the Second Quartet forming the post-interval part of the concert.  Here, the Seventh – the shortest of the composer’s quartets, its through-played three movements lasting just thirteen minutes – led straight to the Second.

The jittery opening of the Allegretto requires firmness of spirit and ensemble, as first violin’s theme is incessantly interrupted, nearly thrown off course, until the cello takes things into its hands.  The Pavel Haas Quartet communicated a strong sense of the ‘working out’ of the form, lucidly delineating the motifs, structure and development.  The violin’s slithering descents were sweet of tone, the answering staccato quavers terse but warm.  Pizzicato quavers were strong and even, accents occasionally interjecting a jarring note.  When the four voices came together there was a comforting fullness and ease, culminating in the cello’s espressivo invitation to join it on a point-of-rest at the cadence of the movement, to which the other voices responded by gently nudging onto an F# major triad.

Lucidity also characterised Marek Zwiebel’s metronomically precise but melodically shaped semiquaver essays across the four strings in the Lento; they were a reassuring foothold in an exploratory movement in which the first violin’s soaring explorations and the lower voices’ glissandi suggested the free roving of a folk-like lament.  This bloomed into Jiří Kabát’s brief theme, which he infused with a subtle graininess.  The transition to one of Shostakovich’s familiar anapaestic drum-beats, in the second violin, accompanying a low unison theme for viola and cello, was a magical sleight of ear, ratcheting up the anxiety, and from here the movement slowly unravelled itself, the cello’s long pedal and the viola’s winding repetitions dissolving into nothingness.  But, the silence was brief: soon we were being whipped into a whirl by the racing counterpoint of the Allegro; each entry was sharply defined and brusque – to achieve such clarity amid such complexity was remarkable.  Never have paranoia and panic sounded so ‘perfect’!  The reappearance of motifs from the opening Allegretto was quite a relief, though the ensuing lop-sided waltz certainly didn’t allow one to settle into one’s seat.  And, here, the Quartet’s rhythmic flexibility wryly blackened the irony.

The Seventh Quartet was written in memory of Shostakovich’s first wife, Nina.  The Second, composed during the years of the Second World War and completed in 1944, is dedicated to the memory of composer Vissarion Shebalin, one of the few who had stood by Shostakovich during the ‘Muddle Instead of Music’ episode in the 1930s.  It seems, in contrast to the logic and sparseness of the Seventh, a more overt display of sorrow and despair.

The Moderato commences, however, in assertive fashion, and here the Pavel Haas Quartet’s lovely rich ensemble sound served the music well.  The elasticity of the hemiola sway of the first violin’s theme pulled in the other instruments, and the equality of the discussion was exciting and insistent.  Greatly rhythmic regularity in the development section was rendered ‘spookier’ by the inner-voice pizzicatos and the whispered hush of first violin and cello exchanges of the thematic material.  There was compelling forward movement towards homophonic arco ‘strumming’ as Jarůšková soared, seducing with the powerful gloss of her E-string tone, the intonation precise, the music’s spirit ‘free’.  The melody’s fourth and fifth intervals, and vigorous, gutsy ascents up the lower violin strings imbued the movement with a folky vitality, enhanced by Jarůšková’s infectious delight in the sheen of the first violin’s ringing open E strings.

The first violin may also dominate the following Recitative and Romance; Adagio, but it is a much less confident voice that we hear now, for all the outpouring of personal feeling.  The sustained chords of the lower three strings faded from chorale-like warmth to a spectral murmur as Jarůšková explored and reflected in the unfolding recitative, harmonies ‘crunching’ with moving plaintiveness, the violin’s double-stopping expanding the emotional breadth of the searching ‘solo’ voice. The slip into the Romance initially appeared to promise comfort, but quickly the chromatic nuances and pizzicato interjections unsettled.  The tempo didn’t linger; the Pavel Haas pushed forward with surprising temerity into the more marked episode.  And, when the violin’s recitative returned it was troubled by quasi-violent pizzicato outbursts, and by the paradoxical unrest of the ensemble’s harmonic lingering.

The quasi-Mahlerian Waltz was macabre and frightening – the music seems to stand on a precipice of madness with a deranged grin on its face, yet there was still beauty in its eeriness.  The Theme and Variations was absolutely gripping, from the viola’s lovely, confident initial statement of the songful theme, through the ‘inevitable’ stages of development that follow, increasing in energy and compulsion.  There is so much ‘going-on’ in this music, but the Pavel Haas Quartet made every step of the journey crystalline; after the fury of repeated triplets which seemed at risk of imploding under the pressure of their own wildness and the dynamism of the violins’ off-beat multiple-stopped chords, there came a brief palette-refreshing easing.  But, the propelling dynamism did not cease and would not be suppressed.  The climactic statements by the lower three voices seemed to come from one sixteen-stringed instrument and were answered with eloquent power by Jarůšková, though – in true Slavonic fashion, one might feel! – it was the inner voice of the viola that had the last word.

A recital comprising music solely by Shostakovich is always an intense, moving – and sometimes a harrowing – musical experience.  However, the warm chords of the close brought if not exactly comfort, then at least some hope.

Claire Seymour

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