WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Pavel Haas Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: SU 4172-2
The Pavel Haas Quartet’s recordings have propelled them to a central position in chamber music performance in recent years. In particular, their readings of the key masterpieces of the Czech repertoire, Janácek and Dvorák in particular, make each new issue an occasion. Their recording of the two Smetana String Quartets does not disappoint. These highly personal works – the first an autobiographical narrative of Smetana’s triumphs and tragedies, not least in chronicling his rapid and complete deafness at the height of his powers – bring the world of opera and chamber music together in graphic manner.
These are definitive performances in which nothing is taken for granted, enhanced by a resonant acoustic which gives opulence to the weightier sections. The Pavel Haas’s interpretation of the First Quartet’s opening movement blends tragedy and gentle nostalgia with flawless timing and the development achieves terrifying intensity before relaxing into the affecting, quizzical close. Everywhere there is detail to admire, not least the sheer humour of the cello playing in the Polka, and I challenge anyone not to have chills up their spine during the tragic climax of the finale.
The Pavel Haas Quartet also provides a compelling guide to the extreme mood swings that dominate Smetana’s Second Quartet. While there is plenty of vigour, they also look beyond the haunted nature of the opening material to reveal the vision that so appealed to none other than Arnold Schoenberg. These performances set a new standard and reveal so much of what makes these quartets unique.