Magazine article Gramophone

Gramophone Recording of the Month: Harriet Smith Welcomes the Pavel Haas Quartet's Latest Spectacular Recording-The Two Autobiographical String Quartets of Their Countryman Bedrich Smetana

Magazine article Gramophone

Gramophone Recording of the Month: Harriet Smith Welcomes the Pavel Haas Quartet's Latest Spectacular Recording-The Two Autobiographical String Quartets of Their Countryman Bedrich Smetana

Article excerpt

[G]

Smetana

String Quartets--No 1, 'From My Life'; No 2

Pavel Haas Quartet

Supraphon [F] SU4172-2 (48' * DDD)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

This is becoming a bit of a habit. The Pavel Haas Quartet record a disc. Critics swoon and reach for their superlatives box, usually hidden away on a top shelf to avoid overindulgence. Result? It ends up as Disc of the Month and a hot contender for a Gramophone Award. But swooning is not enough, and nor are superlatives. So let's try and explore why this is so spectacularly good.

The PHQ already have an extraordinary track record with music of their Czech homeland (Dvofak, Janacek and of course Haas), so their Smetana was always going to be highly personal. Their sound is, as ever, immediately recognisable--partly due to the sheer richness of timbre but also the sense of four personalities at play. That is palpable from the opening viola solo of the First Quartet; here, Pavel Niki revels in the juicy lower register of his instrument and the effect is markedly different from the Jerusalem Quartet's viola player--fine though he is--who is less lustrous-toned. In the answering phrases between the two violins what is striking is the level of detail combined with an apparent spontaneity. What this new version captures particularly compellingly is the sense of the music's extremes--at times it's hard to believe you are in the presence of only four players, so intense is the sound. No element is taken for granted, and the way they colour the dotted falling figure that dominates so much of the first movement is a masterclass in imagination yet never sounds in the least bit contrived.

Not everyone is going to agree about their approach to the polka-infused second movement. They are more galumphing than the Jerusalem, who cut a fine, sophisticated dash and are slightly fleeter in the outer sections. On the other hand, the PHQ's viola brings off the quasi tromba marking very effectively (tr 2, 0'48"), while in the fairground-like Trio, the two violinists judge to a nicety the crescendos and diminuendos on their double-stopped chords in which Smetana conjures up a very lifelike squeezebox (sample from 1'46" onwards). In fact, so focused are they on the characterisation of this movement, injecting into the piu allegro markings not just speed but an increase in intensity, that a moment of wayward tuning, just before the five-minute mark, is left uncorrected. Though initially disconcerted, I did find this became less of an issue on repeated listening.

The PHQ's inherently 'vocal' style gives the First Quartet's biographical elements a particularly poignant edge. This is especially effective in moments such as the cello soliloquy that opens the Largo sostenuto, which finds Peter Jamsek voluptuously eloquent, his poignant phrases answered with equal intensity by leader Veronika Jaruskova (tr 3, 0'50"). Here, the PHQ are several degrees warmer than the more forlorn Talich, whose reading prizes plangency over lyricism and whose every climax is almost painfully hard-won. In the finale, the Jerusalem find a thrilling drive, without making light of the more inward moments. Yet the PHQ are to my mind more compelling still, launching into it with a heady exultancy which makes the catastrophic moment where Smetana's deafness is announced by a piercing high E on the first violin (tr 4, 3'34") all the more searing--more shocking in impact than either the Jerusalem or even the Talich. Nothing can be the same after this; and in the closing minutes of the quartet they manage to convey a succession of emotions --warmth, doubt, determination and ultimately a quiet sense of resignation. …

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