Pavel Haas Quartet
Stravinsky / Ravel / Dvořák

Konservatorium Bern, 2017-12-04

4.5-star rating

2017-12-08 — Original posting
2018-04-29 — Addendum about change in ensemble staff


Pavel Haas Quartet (© Marco Borggreve)
Pavel Haas Quartet (© Marco Borggreve)

The Artists

In 2002, the violinist Veronika Jarůšková founded a string quartet that was named after the Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899 – 1944), who was imprisoned by the Nazis in the Terezín ghetto in 1941. Three years later he died in Auschwitz. Pavel (Paul) Haas was the most talented pupil of Leoš Janáček (1854 – 1928). The break-through for the Pavel Haas Quartet came in 2005, when the ensemble won the Paolo Borciani Competition (Premio Paolo Borciani). Since then, the quartet is pursuing an international concert and recording career.

Veronika Jarůšková has remained a constant in the Prague-based quartet ever since its foundation. After a number of changes in the staff, the ensemble now features the following members, including Veronika Jarůšková’s husband, Peter Jarůšek:

  • Veronika Jarůšková, violin
  • Marek Zwiebel, violin
  • Radim Sedmidubský, viola
  • Peter Jarůšek, cello

For further information, see also Wikipedia. Naturally the first recordings of the ensemble (2006, 2007) featured works by Leoš Janáček, and the three string quartets by Pavel Haas. Since then, the Pavel Haas Quartet went on to record quartets by Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827), Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828), Bedřich Smetana (1824 – 1884), Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953), and—naturally—Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904).

The quartet performed in the probably most popular configuration, with the two violinists on the left, followed by the cellist, and the violist in the right-most position. The setting was that of a semi-circle, with Veronika Jarůšková facing the violist, the latter facing the second violin, i.e., turned slightly inwards, the “f holes of his instrument pointing towards the rear of the podium. In this venue , this didn’t lead to any acoustic disadvantage at all.

The Venue, the Audience

The concert was held in Bern’s favored chamber music concert venue, the great hall of the Bern Conservatory. This was the second concert that I attended in this location. Se my earlier post for the review of another chamber music event on 2017-05-15.

The venue was well-sold, the setting more informal than a typical concert hall. The audience included a bigger number of elderly people than a typical orchestral concert. Many people seemed to know each other—typical for an audience consisting predominantly of subscription visitors. Is it that elderly people shy away from the noisy city (not that the Swiss capital was very noisy, though), or is it rather that chamber music is less attractive for younger audiences? Or is it deemed “difficult to comprehend”? I fail to understand why younger audiences are less attracted to this type of concert. When I was young, I found chamber music—string quartets in particular—just as interesting as any other classical music…


Stravinsky: Concertino for String Quartet (1920)

Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) wrote his Concertino for String Quartet in 1920. The title Concertino—strange for a string quartet composition—refers both to the short duration, as well as to the prominent, “concertizing” role of the first violin. It seems to me that this short piece (nevertheless very demanding on the musicians!) stands at the intersection between the composer’s percussive / jazzy style, his (upcoming) neoclassicism (greetings from Pulcinella!), the rhythmic perseverance of “Sacre du printemps“, and the fiddle playing in “L’histoire du soldat“. These interconnections are all mentioned in the program notes. However they are all obvious. Concerts that I attended over the past year confirmed every single one of these to me!

The Performance

Stravinsky asks for a lot of percussive, rough string playing, particularly in the initial part. However, The Pavel Haas Quartet avoided extremes in roughness. Initially, I even had the impression of a (relatively!) mellow, rounded tone. But it definitely was a tone with grip, with limited vibrato and flawless intonation, especially in the first violin (and also in the tricky double-stop passages!). The quartet was rhythmically extremely firm, throughout the piece (not just in the jazzy segment).

The ensemble managed to maintain a sound sonority even in the very percussive, rhythmic sections, especially up to and during the “Pulcinella” segment. Was the “fiddling” (anticipation of “L’histoire du soldat“) even too nice?? Most definitely, we enjoyed a fun piece, and a real fun interpretation—enthralling!

Tuning vs. Intonation

Towards the end of the Concertino, though, there was a very slight degradation in intonation purity. However, that’s no less than understandable, as the rough, even gross, percussive articulation puts considerable strain on the strings, causing detuning. I suspect that in a live performance this cannot be done any better. There are recordings with virtually perfect intonation—e.g., the one with the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Pierre Boulez (1925 – 2016). However, these are studio recordings, not live concerts. A clear indication for instrument detuning was that prior to the Ravel quartet, the ensemble spent some time off-stage, carefully re-adjusting the tuning.


Ravel: String Quartet in F major, M.35

Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) wrote his String Quartet in F major, M.35 in 1902/03, at age 28, and at a time when the composer still struggled to obtain the recognition that he truly deserved. This was his first, major chamber music work, and it follows a standard, four-movement form, starting with a sonata movement:

  1. Allegro moderato – très doux
  2. Assez vif – très rythmé
  3. Très lent
  4. Vif et agité

Ravel cleverly brackets the composition by re-using motifs from the opening movement in the subsequent sections of the quartet.

The Performance

I. Allegro moderato – très doux

Ravel specified “très doux“—and indeed, very mellow it was, how the Pavel Haas Quartet began this movement! Now that expressive playing was required, Veronika Jarůšková (and her companions) switched to smoother playing with more (and more evenly spread) vibrato—certainly adequate for music from the early 20th century.

Throughout the piece—and throughout the rest of the evening, actually—the quartet exhibited perfect ensemble playing, in terms of coordination, also across transitions. I also noted the perfect intonation, the excellent dynamic control and balance, down to the finest whispering. Yes, Veronika Jarůšková is leading the quartet, often seemed to dominate—but not more than what the score asks for. By all means: a near-perfect performance, absolutely exhibiting Ravel’s impressionist style—expressive, but without an excess of emotionality.

On top of this, the movement also demonstrated what persisted throughout the evening: the four instruments appeared to match perfectly. This isn’t just a question of choosing the “right” instrument(s), but it demonstrates how well the four artists have mutually adopted a unified articulation (bowing, bow placement and pressure, etc.). It was often hard to hear the difference between the instruments. In this movement, the two violins often appeared like one and the same, then, the second violin appeared to merge with the viola, and later, the cello was sounding as if the first violin was playing on the G-string.

II. Assez vif – très rythmé

This movement features recurring pizzicato-only segments, and violin cantilenas with pizzicato accompaniment. The quartet played with perfect timing / coordination. This persisted through Ravel’s rhythmic shifts and the frequent hemioles, and where pizzicato chains run across several instruments, the transitions were absolutely seamless. The pizzicato ranged from motoric pp accompaniment to multi-stop ff chords with an astonishing volume.

The Lent (slow) section (con sordino) was expressive, even with an occasional portamento, but the vibrato was never excessive—just what I picture as ideal with impressionist French chamber music.

In watching the ensemble “at work”, I noted how focused they were playing, the constant and total mutual attention, the engagement. Serious musicians who appeared to be playing for themselves, not to show off virtuosity, power, or whatever. While playing, the artists did not appear to take notice of the presence of an audience.

III. Très lent

Startling, this beautiful singing on the viola, right at the beginning, when all instruments play con sordino! Interestingly, Ravel has the cello take over the melody an octave above the viola, accompanied by tremolo on the other instruments. It’s a really eerie effect! Here, the quartet often played with very little vibrato—even without at times. Then again, vibrato enhanced the nice cantilenas in this serene, “moon-lit” movement. The cello has some short, very expressive, deep and rhythmically marked interjections. However, the same amount of intensity persisted also in the pp segments!

IV. Vif et agité

This may seem like a rhythmically tricky movement. It is mostly in 5/8 and 5/4 time (mostly 2 + 3, sometimes also 3 + 2), intermittently switching to 3/4. That’s no challenge at all for this quartet: Czech (and Slavonic, in general) musicians are thoroughly familiar with such rhythms, from their folk music. It’s in their blood, so to say. But even so, the movement is very virtuosic. The ensemble offered a masterful performance, with perfect control and coordination in dynamics, tone / articulation, and rhythm, also across rubato: it was obvious how much “collective experience” went into this excellent interpretation.


Dvořák: String Quartet No.14 in A♭ major, op.105, B.193

Antonín Dvořák (1841 – 1904) composed the last two of his string quartets in parallel. His last quartet, String Quartet No.14 in A♭ major, op.105, B.193 was completed in 1895, after the composer’s return from the United States. The quartet No.14 appeared shortly ahead of String Quartet No.13 in G major, op.106, B.192, hence the mix-up with the quartet vs. the opus numbering. This quartet is the composer’s last piece of “absolute” music. Thereafter, he only composed “program music”, such as symphonic poems and opera. The quartet op.105 has four movements:

  1. Adagio ma non troppo — Allegro appassionato
  2. Molto vivace
  3. Lento e molto cantabile
  4. Allegro non tanto

The Performance

The Pavel Haas Quartet started their recording career in 2006 (see above). However, only in 2010 they started recording Antonín Dvořák’s string quartets, with a first set of two quartets, No.12 (see below) and No.13. Presumably (hopefully!), also No.14 will find its way onto a CD!

I. Adagio ma non troppo — Allegro appassionato

The movement starts with a slow introduction in A♭ minor. That’s unusual and tricky for string instruments (7 x ♭, no resonance from empty strings). It yields a “covered”, shady atmosphere, with some resolute accents and strong crescendi. After 14 bars, the atmosphere brightens up, and the Allegro appassionato sets in, with a serene melody in the first violin. But that’s not the only theme here—Dvořák adds several more, mostly carried by the first violin, later also the cello.

Within a few bars, we were immersed in the typical idiom of Czech music, reminding of Czech folk music, not just rhythmically. It’s music full of typical, Slavonic rhythmic intricacies, with the harmonies and modulations so typical of Dvořák. Needless to say that this is the ensemble’s “home turf”, questions about interpretation style simply don’t arise. And the quality of the performance left nothing to wish for.

II. Molto vivace

This looks like a typical Scherzo in 3/4 time. However, it is polyrhythmic, entirely Slavonic in its rhythmic shifts and “extras” (syncopes, hemioles, quintuplets, quadruplets), with Dvořák’s typical, slightly melancholic cantilenas, but in an earnest base tone. Again, the first violin and the cello are the protagonists. The latter provides drive or sets the pace with often heavy pounding. Then, there was that serene, dreamy middle section alluding to music from Dvořák’s “American” period, expressing longing, nostalgia perhaps—very atmospheric, indeed! The darker Scherzo returned, of course, as the slow movement follows:

III. Lento e molto cantabile

A true idyll, mostly in F major, with the two violins frequently in thirds and sixths. Once more , the music often reminds of Dvořák’s “American” period. The quartet’s playing was entirely calm, tranquility, serenity, even when the music temporarily darkens into D minor. Overall, it felt like music in a paradise.

Vibrato was used selectively only, and again, there were moments when the cello perfectly matched the sound of the viola. And also in this movement, the ensemble exhibited excellent dynamic control, formed harmonious, big arches. Never they dropped the tension, throughout, ending after a “mini-climax” in the faintest of ppp, “perdendosi“.

IV. Allegro non tanto

The first 10 bars, mostly pp, sounded like a dark menace. But then, in an instant, we found ourselves in a joyful folk dance with gentle, swaying agogics, and the occasional rumbling in the cello never could seriously threaten that atmosphere, up to the enthralling, catchy ending. Well done!


Encore — Dvořák, String Quartet No.12 in F major, op.96, B.179: II. Lento

Quite expectedly, for the encore, the ensemble stayed with Antonín Dvořák. Marek Zwiebel, the most recent addition to the ensemble, announced the second movement, Lento, from the String Quartet No.12 in F major, op.96, B.179, “American”. This is a piece with the same, special atmosphere as the slow movement in Dvořák’s Symphony No.9 in E minor, op.95, B.178, “From the New World”, which is based on a pentatonic scale, just like the melodies in three of the movements of this quartet.

It’s such serene music—and the Pavel Haas Quartet played if so expressively, yet without the slightest element of show, of extraversion, entirely immersed into the atmosphere of the piece, just like the audience. It’s mostly ppp, or ppp, with very short emotional “excursions”, entirely calm, overall, almost meditative, really touching and gripping: a masterful ending, indeed!

Conclusion

An excellent performance of one of Europe’s (or the world’s) top string quartet ensembles, well worth remembering!


Addendum, 2018-04-29

The following announcement was just posted 3 days ago (2018-04-26): “The Prague-based Pavel Haas String Quartet has today announced the appointment of 34-year-old violist Jiří Kabát to the ensemble – effective immediately. A violin and viola graduate of the Prague Conservatory and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, Jiří currently holds a professorship at the Conservatory of Pardubice – and has performed as a member of the Vlach String Quartet since 2010. He will replace violist Radim Sedmidubský, who joined the ensemble in 2016.



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