Terrific playing from a world-class quartet

Pavel Haas Quartet at Birmingham Town Hall *****

It’s an unwritten rule for string quartet recitals that a variety of key and structure is necessary, particularly when only two works are performed. Yet here we had two quartets in G major, Schubert’s No 15 Op 161 and Dvořák’s No 13 in Op 106. Both are late works of four movements; the first moderately fast, the second moderately slow, and a finale with a very quick conclusion. The Pavel Haas Quartet’s performance shows that such programming rules-of-thumb can be broken with impunity. Here was displayed a cornucopia of ideas from two composers of genius, a dazzling variety of detail and a myriad of expressive devices. One key opens many doors.

I last saw the Pavel Haas Quartet at this venue in 2014, while there have been personnel changes there’s also continuity; Veronika Jarůšková leads from the first violin, and the quartet’s absolute mastery of their chosen repertoire remains, with a fire-and-ice combination of passionate playing with a forensic eye for detail. Like the Takács Quartet they are arranged with the viola (Dana Zemstov) facing the first violin with the cello (Peter Jarůšek) anchoring the music from the middle. This has the advantage of clarifying for the listener the combinations and oppositions used by both composers – violins and viola versus cello, cello and viola versus fiddles etc.

The opening of Schubert’s quartet was written nearly forty years before Bruckner’s third symphony but what an uncanny presentiment it is, dominated by string tremolandos which became the great symphonist’s calling-card. The players invested the opening with questing, questioning trepidation – does this shivering sound presage tragedy or will the darkness break and sunshine appear? In Op.161 it does both on occasion like a trip through wild woods we can encounter sublime vistas or jolly rusticism – the blithely skipping scherzo – and an exhilarating gallop in the final Allegro vivace. Dvořák’s No 13 is similarly profligate with its ideas and the composer’s endless supply of Bohemian melodies. If the opening theme were an animal it would be a prancing colt, the quartet’s portrayal demanding a smile for its frolicsome litheness, but what pathos they delivered in the Adagio non troppo, a little elegy in waltz time. Goethe described the string quartet as “four rational people conversing” and watching the Pavel Haas Quartet – especially the elaborate facial communication between Jarůšková and second violin Marek Zwiebel – was like privileged eavesdropping on a profound, lively and very enjoyable conversation.

Norman Stinchcombe

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