Review: the Pavel Haas Quartet, Schubert ‘Death and the Maiden’ and the String Quintet

Readers of this blog will know how greatly I have admired the Pavel Haas Quartet for a while. This isn’t me being idiosyncratic: their previous four CDs have been hugely praised, with the most recent Dvorak disk even winning The Gramophone Recording of the Year for 2011. Live, they are the most exciting quartet to watch and hear.

And now, at last, we have a new recording, of the Schubert D minor quartet, “Death and the Maiden”, and the String Quintet.  The Times reviewer wrote “If CDs had grooves I would already have worn out these marvellous recordings  … the perfect fusion of virtuosity and profundity.” Indeed. These performances are of a quite unworldly quality, deeply felt yet utterly thought-through, the most passionate you have heard but with moments of haunting delicacy,  with an overarching architectural vision always holding it all together.

The Pavel Haas launch into “Death and the Maiden” with fierce attack and astringent (almost vibrato-less) tone. And they start as they mean to go on. The recent Takacs and the Belcea versions — good though they are — now seem slightly restrained in contrast (this is the still-young Schubert confronting death here, and the still-young Pavel Haas respond with apt intensity). The obvious comparison would be with the Lindsays’ great recording from twenty five years ago, which I would previously have said was the finest post-war version. But the Pavel Haas’s controlled passion, their even more moving account of the variations of the second movement, and their vehement drive to the end of the quartet, makes — I think — for an unparalleled performance.

As for the Quintet, this performance with Danjulo Ishizaka as the second cello is perhaps even finer. For any players, the problem — isn’t it? — is to maintain a shape to the whole piece: a bit too ethereal with the second movement and a bit too cheery with the last movements, and the Quintet is in danger of seeming unsatisfyingly unbalanced. But here, the whole hangs together better than any other interpretation I know. Although the playing is more expansive, within a few bars of the opening, the Pavel Haas have again built a sense of tension — and the underlying tension is then maintained in a driven, uncompromising, way to the very end, with the slow movement giving only some partial relief (and there, the central section is played with a yearning fierceness, and the playing when the original theme returns is heart-stopping).  This makes for an extraordinarily intense exploration of the music. Surely, a truly great interpretation of this great musical exploration of our humanity and mortality.

After a series of changes of second violin over the years, the Pavel Haas have never sounded better. Hopefully they will now stay happily together as they are. Their website has an interesting short video of them in the Supraphon recording studio. Maybe with two of the quartet having a new baby — Veronika Jarůšková was very evidently pregnant in the recordings — for a while they will want to tour a little less and record a little more. That would be wonderful. How about, say, the three Rasumovsky quartets? Please?

Added The Gramophone reviewer now writes of their “fearless risk-taking , their fervency” and “insanely memorable” phrasing; the Pavel Haas are “absolutely mesmerising” (in the close of the slow movement of the Quintet); “raw, visceral, and with an emotional immediacy that is almost unbearable” (at the ending of Death and the Maiden), and more.

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