The Pavel Haas Quartet live, again

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One of the delights and frustrations of concert-going is how unpredictable the experience can be. Fine ensembles can have off-days. Less regarded players can capture the moment and transport you for a couple of hours.

On the frustrating side, then, the last two outings to hear the usually stellar Academy of Ancient Music were, for different reasons, pretty disappointing. Richard Tognetti’s playing style just didn’t gel with the band’s on the evening I heard him as a guest director in Cambridge. And Richard Egarr’s exaggerated fortepiano embellishments in Haydn at their next concert were positively camp rather than appropriately playful.

On the side of delight, there was the Pavel Haas Quartet again, at their most recent concert at the Wigmore Hall. We had high hopes. Though they hadn’t chosen the most audience-pleasing of programmes (which perhaps is why there was a surprising sprinkling of empty seats). But from the very first moments when they launched into Smetena’s second quartet, they were on fire. Even the composer acknowledged that the first movement “is quite unusual in style and difficult to follow, as if the whole movement were the product of whim….”. And by the time we get to the harmonically dissonant final movement, lesser performances can leave us lost. But the Pavel Haas made this their own, gave such shape and coherence to the piece, played with such attack and mutual understanding, that there was a storm of applause. By far the best performance of the Smetena I have ever heard, on disc or otherwise.

There followed a fine performance of Dvorak’s “Slavonic” quartet. And then after the interval, the Pavel Haas played the Brahms Op. 51, No. 2. Again, not the easiest work to communicate (I for one find don’t find myself drawn to listen and re-listen to Brahms); but by this time the quartet had the audience utterly in their spell, and played with mesmerising authority to produce another astonishing performance. Once more, this was better than any recording I know of the piece, by some way. This was playing of unsurpassed musical understanding and intensity.

If you ever have the chance to hear the Pavel Haas Quartet play live, grab it.>

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