Review: 31 October 2019 – Pavel Haas Quartet: Ľubica Čekovská, Schulhoff, Smetana, Janáček

The Pavel Haas Quartet is a leader among contemporary quartets. Its members, all trained in Prague, bring a style and consistency of musicianship reminiscent of the earlier Prague and Smetana quartets, marked by a passionate commitment to the music and a unique sense of flow and rubato – the subtly shifting rhythms of Bohemian dance are never far away.

Their programme began with a recently composed piece, The Midsummer Quartet by the Slovak composer L’ubica Čekovská, in which the four instruments embody the characters of the Athenians in Shakespeare’s Dream. The clearest characterisation was given to the cello, a stomping ostinato that whisked us along to a dreamlike central section before returning at the end. The playing, from the first note, was utterly engaging. Then came a rarely-heard quartet from the Czech-born composer Erwin Schulhoff. Like Pavel Haas, Schulhoff was to be a victim of Nazi genocide but here, in the mid1920s, he was enjoying the new-found lightness of Neo-Classicism, his score often invoking the folksy violin/bass duos in Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. The piece is interestingly structured, with three lighthearted movements preceding a quiet, expressionistic finale strongly recalling the earlier quartets of Schulhoff’s teacher, Arnold Schoenberg. This quartet deserves to be better known, especially when it is performed with such commitment and understanding.

The first half of the programme ended with Smetana’s Quartet in D minor, a late piece that by no means lacks passion, yet is curiously fragmented, as if Smetana were struggling to escape from the late-Romantic obsession with long melodic lines. Here the quartet perhaps overplayed some of the more passionate moments, but no such problems arose in the final piece of the programme, Leoš Janáček’s even more intense and even more fragmented Initimate Letters. Each of the four movements comprises a collage of seemingly unrelated fragments, each powerful in its own right and always etched with Janáček’s own characteristic angularity of line and love of dissonance. The musicians clearly understand this work with an intimacy rarely shown by other ensembles, finding just the right style and expressive weight for each phrase. The cellist, playing from memory, was clearly in charge, directing proceedings with an unerring sense of shape and timing. Although a thoroughly modernist work, the audience loved it.

This was a truly exceptional concert, a fascinating programme performed at the very highest level of musicianship.

Peter Johnson