Pavel Haas Quartet at Wigmore Hall: Haydn and Shostakovich

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The Pavel Haas Quartet

Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in D minor, Op. 76 no. 2 “Fifths”
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57

Pavel Haas Quartet:
Veronika Jaruskova, Eva Karova, violins
Pavel Nikl, viola  Peter Jarusek, cello

Khatia Buniatishvili, piano

Day for night. The young Pavel Haas Quartet from the Czech Republic, has been winning prizes and rave notices for eight years now, the flicker of an eye in the usual lifespan of renowned string quartets. We are in the midst of a glut of rising young ensembles of this kind, but the Pavel Haas sets itself aside. It doesn’t come on stage dressed in matching black Dolce & Gabbana or play with the impersonal precision of a machinist shop. Their style is a throwback to the forceful, romanticized sound of Russian groups like the Beethoven, Borodin, and Shostakovich Quartets. Like the last, they took their name from a modern composer. Pavel Haas (1899-1944) died at Auschwitz and has a noted place in Czech music. The group has recorded his three string quartets, which were the impetus for choosing Haas’s name, we are told, rather than as a statement about the Holocaust.

I was already a semi-fan before attending their short noontime concert at Wigmore Hall, thanks to their CDs, but I wasn’t prepared for how powerful a sonority the Pavel Haas produces. They have had three changes of second violin in a short time, perhaps because of the effort of keeping up with such intensity. Unusually, the driving force is a woman, Veronika Jaruskova, first violinist, who founded the group by recruiting fellow students along with her husband, cellist Peter Jarusek, himself a replacement. Changes of personnel aren’t good news for string quartets, who must respond to each other all but telepathically, but this ensemble seems to have thrived.

I wasn’t happy with their reading of Haydn’s Op. 76 no. 2, nicknamed “Fifths” because that interval appears prominently in the theme and development of the first movement. Haydn may be honored as the composer who gave us the structure of the classical string quartet, but he rarely got beyond doubling the viola and cello parts extensively and making the first violin the unrivaled and almost constant lead voice. Jaruskova took this as a cue to make the performance a violin concerto, and her strong, blunt approach shaped the rest. With piled-up blonde curls, a ruffled black blouse, and the habit of swinging and swaying as if on a carnival ride, she cried out for attention. Add to this the fashionable decision to play without vibrato, and no better way could be imagined to leach charm out of the music. A frontal assault on Haydn gets the audience to sit up, but it’s musically crude.

Listening through my annoyance, I had to admire the variety of this work, the second in Haydn’s six entries under Op. 76, acknowledged as his greatest in the genre. By the time Beethoven came to write six quartets of his own, the Op. 18 group, Mozart had intervened, adding a world of invention, yet in his own way Haydn made each movement very different. The first abounds in fifths, creating an open, angular effect unique to this work. In place of a true slow movement we get a serenade marked Allegretto, with the first violin accompanied by plucked notes from the rest of the group. The stark scherzo, nicknamed on its own as the Witches’ Minuet, divides the quartet into pairs playing in octaves, a strange voicing that isn’t exactly wicked or supernatural but does create a sound not heard anywhere else. The finale appears to be a typical racing Rondo but turns out to be one of Haydn’s briefest, quickest exercises in sonata form. I had a lot of time to notice these features since the playing wasn’t enjoyable enough to focus on.

We were back to full vibrato and even greater force in the popular, heroically scaled Shostakovich Piano Quintet, where the Pavel Haas’s extraversion fit the work’s passionate nature. Written in 1940, directly after the Sixth Symphony with its long, achingly sorrowful Adagio, the Piano Quintet isn’t overshadowed by sadness, war, or even Stalinsim. Shostakovich liked to travel, and when his first string quartet, written in 1935 — late for someone who had conquered the symphony before he was twenty-one — proved a great success, he didn’t write a second one immediately but a quintet instead. The intention was to add a piano part so that he could play it on tour and see new places. Not a noble motive, but it produced a stunning work, one of Shostakovich’s masterpieces in chamber music, along with the Piano Trio no. 2 and a handful of his fifteen string quartets.

The program notes trot out the usual cliches about the work’s “sardonic” Scherzo and so on, but I was struck by how ebullient that movement is. Equating an artist’s work with his life is a cheap temptation, nowhere more so than with Shostakovich, who has come to be an emblem of the embattled Soviet composer. But art, and music in particular, doesn’t always fit the mold, and the Piano Quintet romps along in holiday mood very often. It’s also a tribute to Bach in the prelude and fugue that comprise the first two movements. Tributes to Bach, particular of the fugal type, can be dry as dust, but Shostakovich chose a poignant theme, which the Pavel Haas played very expressively. As the motto went from instrument to instrument, one heard a dissenter in the group. The cellist proved to be an inward, feeling kind of player, very different from his wife. Their styles, whether chiming in or contrasting, are the heart of the quartet’s interest so far as this listener is concerned.

The BBC sponsors an ongoing series of Young Generation Artists, of which the Pavel Haas are recent graduates, so to speak, while the young Georgian pianist, Khatia Buniatishvili, is currently enrolled. In recordings, of which the Piano Quintet has received a goodly number, the piano dominates, but here the strings were so powerful that it was all that Buniatishvili could do, tucked away behind them on the tiny stage, to maintain equality. There is also a peculiarity in this hall, that sound coming from the back of the stage tends to bounce around and resonate too much. As a result, the piano part came off as unsubtle and clang-y. I don’t know how much of this to attribute to the performer, but when it came to joining the thrust-and-parry of the others,  Buniatishvili was certainly willing.

This was a reading that strived to be symphonic. It wound up with long stretches of loud triumphalism, which the audience cheered, deeply sonorous moodiness, and real emotional commitment. In other words, the Pavel Haas made their strong personality clear. Whether that translates into greatness only time will tell.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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